What We Really Want

One of the great misunderstandings of our modern world centers around the place of the “will” in our lives. Modern democracies are built around slogans of freedom and fancy themselves to be the vanguard of advancing that cause. It has been a powerful force. Coupled with various aspects of free-market capitalism and the technological revolutions of our age, modernity has produced tremendous wealth and prosperty for many, all of which is re-employed in the sales pitches that surround its existence. Christianity itself has not been immune to this model. To “make a decision for Christ” brings with it deep associations with every commercial encounter of our age. It has left us quite vulnerable to political blandishments (where we are invited to lend our “will”) as well as schemes of prosperity (from the Protestant work ethic to the American Dream – and beyond). We assume we know what the “will” means – and that it appeals to the same mechanisms of choice and preference that accompany us to the mall or the ballot box. The truth is that what popular culture understands to be “freedom” is nothing of the sort. People very rarely engage the will. Indeed, most people live a life in which the will has played very little part. To understand such a claim, it is necessary to think about the will itself as well as the inner operations we use when we “choose.”

We are a culture of shoppers. “Choosey mothers choose Jif!” And so we think of ourselves as a nation who chooses. Sadly, most of the choices that we make barely touch the surface of the will – and even then – the will they touch is something less than the true depths of the human will. Much of what we encounter in our daily choices are little more than the flutterings of the passions. We see an ad (they pop-up everywhere!) and we react with a purchase. This hardly qualifies as the “will.” The will works in the “active voice.” Much of our daily experience is life in the “passive voice.” We respond. We do not choose.

There are choices to be made in our lives – decisions in which we must consider significant differences one way or another. These choices are actions of what the Fathers (especially St. Maximos the Confessor) described as the “gnomic” will. They are the results of deliberations. Interestingly, such deliberations, in the Fathers, are thought of as being a result of our fallen state. The uncertainty behind them is a function of our ignorance (at the very least). And, though fallen, this gnomic will is still of great value. Far greater, however, is the place of the “natural” will. What is it that my human nature wants? What is it that is rightly proper to my nature as a human being?

Fresh-AppleWhen speaking of a “nature” I do not mean to conjure of images of a “thing” (like a resident, controlling object within). “Nature” refers to “what we actually are, in essence.” We exist, as human beings, with a direction, purpose, and fundamental drive that marks each of us. This nature has a “will” – it wants to be truly and fully human. It longs for union with God. It desires conformity to His image. Even in the distortions of our fallenness, the natural will can still be discerned.

The spiritual life can be characterized as the struggle to unite the deliberative (gnomic) will with the natural will. It is not a struggle to make us into what we are not – but to become what we truly are. Another way to say this is that Christ Himself is the image of what it looks like to be truly human.

So, how do we experience this on the level of our daily willing? The ascetical efforts of the Church (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc.) have a goal of “waking us up” – waking us from the slumber of life-in-the-passive-voice. The “natural will” of modern culture is economic. It wills for us to produce and consume, frequently without regard for consequences. It does not think about what it means to be human.

One way to think about our “willing” is under the heading of “intentionality.” Our “waking from slumber” is a learning to pay attention in a healthy way (rather than simply reacting to the day). Perhaps the single best way to work at intentionality is through love.

Love is not a passive response. It is an active extension of our being towards others. Love engages the will at its most fundamental level. There is a reason that the love of God and the love of neighbor are considered the very heart of the commandments. If our “nature” inherently desires to be conformed to the image of Christ and to be united to God, and God “is love,” then actively extending ourselves in love is the very heart of true asceticism and the cornerstone of the spiritual life.

If by nature God is love, someone who has acquired perfect love and mercy towards all creation becomes godlike: his perfect state of love towards creation is a mirror wherein he can see a true image and likeness of the Divine Essence. All the saints ‘for for themselves the sign of complete likeness to God: to be perfect in the love of the neighbor.’ (From The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, pg. 40)

Our actions, especially our ascetical actions, are properly understaken when they are energized by love. It is easy to see how the Tradition exalts alms-giving above everything. If Christ has declared that He Himself is the poor, the sick, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, etc., how do we not (in love) rush to meet Him there?

Our every action throughout the day can be rightly united to prayer, particularly if its energy is love.

Of course, all of us struggle with love. It is a struggle that, when seen in focus, reveals to us how far our lives have lost touch with their meaning and purpose – how far our deliberations have wandered from the fundamental ground of our existence.

To Simon Peter, following the resurrection, Christ speaks to every human heart (as we have all denied Him): “Do you love me?”

This makes sense of St. Augustine’s famous dictum: “Love God and do what you will.”

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