Vigilant Listening: A Reflection on St. Josemaria’s Call and Our Own
“A truly prudent person is ever attentive to God’s promptings and, through this vigilant listening, he receives in his soul the promise and reality of salvation: ‘I glorify thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for having hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to little ones’” (Friends of God, 87).
“Our Lady is there listening to the words of her Son, united to him in his suffering, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ What could she do? She united herself fully with the redemptive love of her Son, and offered to the Father her immense sorrow, which pierced her pure Heart like a sharp edged sword” (Friends of God, 288).
Domina, ut sit!
The persistence with which St Josemaria sought God’s will in the decade or so before he founded Opus Dei reflected his deep interior awareness of an indefinable something that God was calling him to do. Although he could not guess what it was, he possessed a spiritual conviction that it was something more. Such mystical intimations prompted him frequently to repeat prayerful aspirations seeking divine light and strength.
His untiring pursuit of God’s will took an indelible form when he famously inscribed one of these aspirations on the underside of a pedestal of a small statue of our Lady of Pilar: Domina, ut sit! “Lady, may it be!” Actually, it was more of a graffito reminiscent of a petition carved into the wall of a Roman catacomb. Using a common nail as his stylus, he scratched his prayer into the plaster base of the statue. However inelegant the Latin was, as he used to say, it still expressed an ardent desire of his soul to know God’s will and to act on it as soon as it became clear to him–but always through Mary.
During his seminary years in Zaragoza, the future founder made many visits to the nearby shrine of our Lady of Pilar to ask that his role in doing God’s will would come to pass. Sometimes he prayed by day, and more often than not, for long hours throughout the night. But St Josemaria was doing something more than petitioning the Lord: He was listening, and learning from the Blessed Virgin how to listen. He learned to listen to God with such attention and devotion from the same Virgin whose intercession he sought.
Our openness to God’s voice, our willingness to listen, is often frustrated by a fear of surrendering to the difficulties and sacrifices that are a part of His will for us. In a way, we want to see the end of the journey at the beginning. If we could only see the end to which God is leading us, then we would (so we think) embrace ahead of time all of the trials that are a part of that path. Seldom is such clarity granted to us, nor was it granted in full to St Josemaria.
In the spiritual life, it is extremely valuable for us not to see too far ahead. While it is painful to seek and not to find, or to have the finding delayed, sometimes our demand for clarity is at root a fear of trusting in God, a fear of depending on Him, a reluctance to pray our way through the dark nights that faith and trust demand of us. When we wish for a clear direction from the Lord, and yet seem to hear only silence from Him, or only a faint encouragement to continue seeking, this purifies the soul’s desire for assurance, and trains it to do something far more important: to trust and embrace the will of God.
She who had the central role in the incarnation of our Redeemer is not only the best model for our prayer, but also the one to whom we look to teach us how to listen to the Lord, especially in times of anxiety and distress–in times when we are seeking light and apparently finding only darkness.
Of the several Gospel passages that show our Lady listening in an especially attentive way, the Gospel of the finding of the adolescent Jesus in the Temple is unique. The Lord’s words require a listening from the Virgin that is painful. We see a real effort on our Lady’s part to hear Christ’s words and ponder them within her heart. She had felt “great anxiety” in her search and, as the evangelist says about her and St Joseph, “they did not understand what he said to them” (Luke 2:41-50). Are you prepared to listen to God even under those circumstances? Even under anxiety and incomprehension?
It depends on what you are listening for. Whenever we see the Blessed Virgin in Scripture, we always see her looking for ways in which to surrender to God’s will–whether in her mind, heart, or body. Blessed Columba Marmion comments, “Mary’s whole life is contained in these words, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to Thy word.’” From the Annunciation to Calvary, it is one surrender of herself to God after another–and none of them was easy to make.
The need of surrendering is one that we come back to often in the spiritual life–and it is the chief reason why we listen attentively to the Lord. Every morning, in fact, one of the first prayers that many devout souls say is the Morning Offering: “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you…” everything that this day holds for me. I offer back what you send to me, through the Heart that surrenders so completely. Since our hearts are not immaculate, there is a lot within them that needs to be given up. Sometimes things that we never recognized as attachments or even sins are suddenly placed before us–and they are exposed by means of and in the midst of our daily prayers, works, joys, and sufferings.
And then we have to choose whether to hold on to them or to surrender. And sometimes if it is particularly difficult, we need someone to hold our hand and walk us through the renunciation. Our Lady loves to help us in this way. She knows the pain of renunciation and she understands our weakness and hesitancy.
Sometimes we might feel embarrassed by our need to be treated like children. Sometimes we are embarrassed by our lack of a supernatural spirit, by our immaturity. When we feel within ourselves resistance against God’s will; when the conflict between our spiritual ideals and the reality of our attachments is strong, we know that our anguish can only be relieved by one stronger than ourselves who understands our struggle. There is no shame in seeing that we need to be led by the hand, that we need someone to guide us according to God’s plan for our lives. Such a one is the Blessed Mother. We become more her children the more we rely upon her help.
Abbot Marmion, again, says about Christ what we can also say about our Lady: “I pray for you with all my heart that Our Lord may hold you by the hand and make you know and do His holy will.” How gentle and reassuring are those words. The Lord takes our weakness into account and is willing to guide us along as fast as we can go, but not faster. He sees our good will, our sincere desire to serve Him unreservedly, and yet the barriers, the attachments, that keep us hanging on to self-will. And so He gives us Mary to be our companion, for she too had to walk in faith, to trust, to embrace many painful things, for the sake of greater blessings.
Maybe it is unfortunate that the word surrender primarily evokes images of battle and war. One side clearly has the upper hand and the other must give up or risk complete destruction. But there is another surrender, that of love, as in marriage or friendship. It is not one will forcing itself upon another or dominating the other. It is not as it is in a fight: “I give up. You win.” It is a mutual desire of each one to give the gift of self.
In his 2011 homily for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, His Holiness Benedict XVI, while commemorating his diamond jubilee of priestly ordination, spoke of the priesthood in terms of friendship with Christ. “Friendship is … above all a communion of the will. It means that my will grows into ever greater conformity to his will. For his will is not something external and foreign to me, something to which I more or less willingly submit or else refuse to submit. No, in friendship, my will grows together with his will, and his will becomes mine.”
That is the type of surrender that God asks of us, and which He found in Mary’s perpetual willingness to listen carefully and to say yes without looking back. We will never fully appreciate Mary’s perfect surrender until we commit ourselves to the same exacting work of self-offering. Because as the Pope says, “At a deep level, the essence of love… means self-abandonment, self-giving, [and] it bears within itself the sign of the cross.”
St Josemaria spent a decade learning to listen in an especially intense way to the Lord. But it was the bells of the church of Our Lady of the Angels in Madrid, Spain on 2 October 1928 that signaled the end of the waiting and the beginning of something new. The listening was not over, and there were more surrenders required of him in his special calling, but the same Lady who had made God’s will clear to him would enable him to carry it out for decades to come.