As I lay on my back in Hospitalland, a phrase kept coming unbidden into my mind: “the divinization of one’s passivities.” This is a line from one of the great spiritual works of the twentieth century, The Divine Milieu by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In that seminal text, Teilhard famously distinguished between the divinization of one’s activities and the divinization of one’s passivities. The former is a noble spiritual move, consisting in the handing over of one’s achievements and accomplishments to the purposes of God. A convinced Jesuit, Teilhard desired to devote all that he did (and he did a lot) ad majorem Dei gloriam (to the greater glory of God). But this attitude, Teilhard felt, came nowhere near the spiritual power of divinizing one’s passivities. By this he meant the handing over of one’s suffering to God, the surrendering to the Lord of those things that are done to us, those things over which we have no control. We become sick; a loved one dies suddenly; we lose a job; a much-desired position goes to someone else; we are unfairly criticized; we find ourselves, unexpectedly, in the valley of the shadow of death. These experiences lead some people to despair, but the spiritually alert person should see them as a particularly powerful way to come to union with God. A Christian would readily speak here of participating in the cross of Christ. Indeed how strange that the central icon of the Christian faith is not of some great achievement or activity, but rather of something rather horrible being done to a person. The point is that suffering, offered to God, allows the Lord to work his purpose out with unsurpassed power.
In some ways, Teilhard’s distinction is an echo of St. John of the Cross’s distinction between the “active” and “passive” nights of the soul. For the great Spanish master, the dark night has nothing to do with psychological depression, but rather with a pruning away of attachments that keep one from complete union with God. This pruning can take a conscious and intentional form (the active night) or it can be something endured. In a word, we can rid ourselves of attachments—or God can do it for us. The latter, St. John thinks, is far more powerful and cleansing than the former.
I confess to not being well versed in this notion of handing over one's suffering to God but in the shadow of the Cross, it makes so much Christian sense.
Recently, I had two separate ailments, both of them short-lived (thank God), where I was in a decent amount of pain. I made a conscious decision to ask God to take my pain and to do something on behalf of loved ones. I offered up my pain for them. It helped me take something forcing me to look inward and instead deflect it outward. It honestly helped. The pain did not, in the moment, lessen but I took comfort in trusting that God would use this pain for something better.
There is much wisdom in the Church's ways, wisdom that looks like such foolishness from the outside.
Lord, help us to accept and trust this wisdom.