Free will + determinism: God's Divine Providence and finding a new spiritual guide

Oh the joys of enforced school closure due to heavy snow! I can now do a little blogging :-)


When I transferred from our Liverpool community to our Southampton one (in my home town, attached to my old school) 18 months ago, I had as a priority the desire + need to seek out someone whom I felt would be the right kind of spiritual "guide" for me, someone who would also be a friend and with whom I would therefore feel very comfortable talking about the "difficult stuff" of life.

I hesitate to use the word "director" because nowadays many spiritual "directors" seem to dislike the term themselves as suggesting too much of a uni-directional relationship. The French talk of "un accompagnateur spirituel", a spiritual "accompanist" and I think this term suits far better the role itself.

So. how was I to find such a person? Well, that's just the point... I felt it wasn't really up to me. I was convinced that it was God's will that I change communities and that in going back to my home town I was going where he wanted me to be at that time. So, I kind of saw it as his problem, not mine. But, in reality, the individual still has a big part to play in such a process.

A fellow blogger points out how 2 spiritual heavyweights of the past spoke about this creative tension (if I may describe it as such) between depending on God's Providence and human responsibility/free thought/free action:

'In the fifth century St. Augustine wrote the following, “Work as if everything depends on you and pray as if everything depends on God.” Sounds like a typical message from the saints: direct, clear, yet all too conspicuously religious. However, St. Ignatius throws a monkey wrench into St. Augustine’s well calibrated machine when he switches it around, saying, “Work as if everything depends on God, and pray as if everything depends on you.”'

Either way, there is a paradox here that fans of the debate on freewill + determinism (oh I loved teaching that in 6th Form R.E.!) would find fascinating. One cannot just sit back and wait for things to happen, one has to engage the mind, the discerning will, one's own energies and actions, but at the same time depend - in prayer and abandonment to God - on God guiding your spirit to do the right thing at the right time, to be in the right place at the right time.

The fact that I have been lucky enough to feel God's guiding hand in this way on numerous occasions since my teenage years helps me to generally find it something that I can allow to happen. In the case of the need for a new spiritual guide, I decided to try and be proactive: I went to a few different parish churches for Mass over the first few weeks, I listened to people speaking about local clergy (my preference was for a priest simply because of wanting to kill 2 birds with one stone in terms of also being able to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation - though in reality the 2 roles have since been fulfilled by 2 different people).

No obvious signs from God in those early days and weeks, so I let things ride... things would happen in their own time, I felt (God's time is not our time). Then, by the end of September it came time to start organising day retreats, one class at a time, at a nearby by diocesan spiritual centre, Park Place, run by a community of mainly Indian nuns. As acting Head of R.E. for a year (during a maternity leave) I ran the days with the much appreciated assistance of our school Chaplain, Fr. Michael.

On a number of occasions during these retreats in the autumn term, I bumped into the centre's live-in Chaplain Fr. Andrew McMahon ofm (a 74 year-old Franciscan friar - now 75). I had known of Fr. Andrew for many years, in fact since my teens and the sponsored 10 km runs that I used to take part in organised by the charity that he founded and directed, the St. Dismas Society, that ran homes for ex-criminals and other social "outcasts". I had always had the greatest of admiration for him and his work, but had only ever spoken to him very briefly during the odd recollection day that me and my fellow Brothers had in the centre over the years, for example our Christmas recollection day (we take turns in going to each others' communities each year for Christmas - Liverpool + Southampton).

During these encounters at Park Place last autumn, I was surprised and pleased that he actually seemed to remember me or know of me (maybe it was just politeness on his part). It quickly became apparent in my heart that this was a person with whom I would be most comfortable talking about the deepest issues and with whom I also had some shared interests: sport (especially football, he was Chaplain to Southampton F.C. during the glory years of the '70s + '80s), film, the arts in general (he is a painter and sculptor).

And so one day I asked him if I could come round sometime for a chat and whether, in the long term, he might consider becoming my spiritual "director"? He seemed quite happy with the idea, but rejected the notion of being a "director", preferring to be considered rather as a friend. This felt more and more right for me and I did indeed feel as if God was guiding me to him...

To cut a long story short, we have indeed become firm friends over the past year and a bit.... see next article for more on Fr. Andrew.

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