Free Will and the Grace of Conversion
A Note on the November 25th Message at Medjugorje
On November 25, 2013, Marija Pavlovic-Lunetti, a seer of Medjugorje, Bosnia- Hercegovina, made public a message which she claims to have received in a vision of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The message itself is typical of the “Medjugorje messages” which have been published over the last twenty-plus years. But this message centers on the connection between the traditional Catholic concept of human free will and the operation of God’s directive grace, and it provides an interesting view of this connection, which is a topic of enduring interest to me.
Following is the message:
"Dear children! Today I call all of you to prayer. Open the doors of your heart profoundly to prayer, little children, to prayer with the heart; and then the Most High will be able to act upon your freedom and conversion will begin. Your faith will become firm so that you will be able to say with all your heart: 'My God, my all.' You will comprehend, little children, that here on earth everything is passing. Thank you for having responded to my call." (www.medjugorje.org; Message, 25. November 2013.)
In the wisdom contained here—the source of the wisdom, for our purposes, does not affect the understanding expressed here, whether the message is indeed an exhortation by Mary, the Mother of Jesus, or whether it is an expression of the spiritual wisdom of Marija herself—is to be found an alternative view of human will than the understanding I have come to have.
In my view, human will is considered to be conditional free will, for I have come to see that human motivations to act arise from an impenetrable source within the person. This source is the well-spring of all perceptions, thoughts, feelings, motivations, decisions, and all the other components of the “human self.” But when we attempt to view this “source” clearly, we find that we cannot perceive the inner workings of it, but just the end-product which emerges from it.
When we make decisions, even if we claim to make them “freely,” the decision-making process largely occurs in, and is always influenced by, elements of this source of which we are only vaguely aware or indeed unaware. I further contend that this source is not restricted to each individual, but that in fact, the source in each of us is shared among all of us. All humans share the core emotions, the same unpremeditated responses to certain circumstances, the same archetypes, and so on. So, human will is not only conditional, when viewed introspectively by the individual, but it is also a shared “organ” or “organism” or “mechanism.” And every individual human is in some way a component of this large-scale shared organism.
The consequence of this line of thought is that our “choice for God,” our conversion, is not a free choice at all. Likewise, our “choice” to sin—to freely leave the good will of God—is not a free choice either. Both choices arise within our consciousness from the source within us, and we cannot explain precisely how either decision was arrived at. We can talk of feelings or impulses or motivations which spring from our childhood experiences, but we cannot grasp clearly the factors which combined or shuffled themselves within us to produce the decision which arises in our consciousness.
My understanding of why this occurs is that our individuality has very little to do with the spiritual realities. When we recognize that everything we are and every characteristic which we identify as ours is in reality simply Divinity functioning in our locale—that is, that each of us is Divinity being what Divinity is—that in fact, Divinity is all there really is, and that we are individually the products of Divinity’s creative love—then we come to recognize our true status as “creatures” or as “children of God.” In that state of recognition, Divinity is “all in all.” Divinity is everything that exists. To Divinity, seen in this way, we must pray with the seer Marija, “My God, my all.”
Marija seems to express this same understanding. She too conceives the soul or spirit to find itself in a state of surrender. The soul surrenders everything that it understandings itself to be to the universe-wide greatness of Divinity. It does this because it sees itself, in all its characteristics and ways of being—in its whole individuality—as utterly worthless, gaining no benefit from clinging to its separate self. Rather, it sees immensely more benefit in merging as one with God, so that God is the soul’s “all.”
So, Marija and I end up in the same recognition of our place in God. But Marija seems to come to this ending in a different way. Marija describes the process thus: “Open the doors of your heart profoundly to prayer, little children, to prayer with the heart; and then the Most High will be able to act upon your freedom and conversion will begin.” The beginning step for all of us is the desire to know Divinity—no matter how we came to experience this desire. For Marija, this desire leads to interacting spiritually with Divinity—to “praying.” Here praying seems to mean open-minded attentiveness to Divinity. It is not “word-praying” or somehow communicating with beings in the spiritual order of things. It is simply turning the attention to the spiritual realities and being willing to openly receive. That is what Marija seems to mean by “Open the doors of your heart profoundly to prayer . . . with the heart.” The important issue here in not the saying of words or the seeking of guidance and direction in one’s planning. The important issue is surrender of the self, of the individual identity, in order to step closer to Divinity.
In response to this openness to receive, Divinity is seen as influencing the person’s will to draw increasingly closer and more attentive to Divinity. Marija says that when the soul opens itself in prayer, “then the Most High will be able to act upon your freedom and conversion will begin.” Marija assumes that the decision to pray with openness of heart is a free decision of one’s will. The person takes the initiative to open his or her heart to God in surrender. In traditional Catholic theology, this decision must be completely free because otherwise, the Catholic Church teaches, our love of God cannot be proven to be authentic. There is always the suspicion that God, not the person, is responsible for turning the person to God in open-hearted love. In that case, we are forced to consider the possibility that human beings do not decide for themselves and are not responsible for their decisions. In that case, we are automatons, not free human beings, and our love of God means nothing.
Once the decision for God is made by the soul, then Divinity “will be able to act upon your freedom and conversion will begin.” Here it is clear that surrender of self to Divinity includes for Marija the surrender of personal freedom, that is, of the freedom to choose. For Marija, the “choice for God” includes the handing-over of free will. For, after that, Divinity is able to begin to influence your decisions in a substantial way, and the soul will focus more and more on leaving the self behind, and merging with Divinity. The outcome of this process of turning is final mergence with God. The soul gives up its desire to find value for itself in setting itself apart from all the rest of creation. The soul finds its home in union with Divinity. Marija means this when she says, “you will be able to say with all your heart: 'My God, my all.'”
What can we conclude from drawing this distinction between Marija’s understanding of human decision-making, and my own? Is one or the other a better or more accurate depiction of the human person?
I don’t know. I know that I have tried to express in my notion of conditional free will my own experience as an introspective human being. That is all I can offer. That, and this. When one finally finds the way into the presence of Divinity, and when one merges with Divinity, one tastes the sweetness of Divinity. The answers to such questions as these pale in comparison with the experience of the expansive beauty and kindness of the heart of God.
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