In the higher education calendar, August is a time of last minute planning for the academic year. Of course, it does not take too many cycles of planning for a school year to realize that things often do not work out the way we painstakingly plan. Indeed, one of life’s most difficult learnings is that the future often ends up different than we planned. One of the most poignant pieces of American literature wrestling with this human challenge is John Steinbeck’s 1927 novella: “Of Mice and Men”. The principal characters in Steinbeck’s story, you may recall, are George and Lennie, two migrant field hands with a powerful dream of purchasing their own farm someday. The book ends tragically, with the reader taken into the heart of the greyness of some moral situations, as well as the sadness and disorientation of witnessing human plans getting crushed in the mortar and pestle of life’s challenges and disappointments.
The title of Steinbeck’s book comes from a famous Scottish poem written by Robert Burns in 1786: To A Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough. The poem is written in the voice of a farmer who accidentally ploughs up a mouse nest and speaks to the mouse of his regret and his realization that the situation is a reflection on the tenuousness of the planning cycles of all mortal beings. Says the farmer to the mouse:
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.
Perhaps the master of discernment (or “spiritual planning) in the Catholic tradition is the founder of the Jesuits – Ignatius of Loyola – who developed discernment into a high art form, one that remains as psychologically astute in our own day as it was in the 16th century of his times. Ignatius discovered the art of spiritual discernment has as much to do with the events and circumstances in life as it does with our prayer, attentiveness to the subtle movements in our consciousness, and study. Yet, despite his commitment to the careful planning of what he believed God called him to be and do, Ignatius rarely had his plans work out.
He wanted to take his Society of Jesus into the mission fields of Africa, but instead laid the foundation for the largest private educational system in the world. He wanted to live out of a suitcase, responding to the special needs of the church of his day, but instead spent most of his ministerial life in Rome, embroiled in the details and politics of launching a new religious community.
Ignatius had so many plans dashed on the rocks of reality that a Jesuit friend of mine, Fr. Jerry Fagin, SJ, once wrote a journal article he originally named: Plan B (later published under another name*). Jerry taught at Loyola Univeristy New Olreans in a ministry education program for mostly Catholic lay ministry students. An Ignatian scholar, Fr. Fagin noted in his article that Ignatius was dreamer and an optimist and always had a Plan A. Often, and certainly with some of the most significant decision-making times in his life, Ignatius had to move to Plan B. (You’re welcome to read Jerry Fagin’s originalarticle here in a PDF.)
In moving often to Plan B, Ignatius came to realize that planning, preparation, implementing, and on-going discernment in response to changing circumstances are part of a continuum of discerning God’s dream for our lives. In the implementation of a plan, the doors to the future open into a mystery of what comes next; and, as one steps into this mystery, new, unimagined opportunities open him or her. This interpretation thrwarted plans helped Ignatius to never see failed dreams as God willing or orchestrating obstacles. Rather, as Jerry Fagin notes, Ignatius came to believe that in each dashing of a plan “God used the circumstances to place a new path” under his feet, one leading to “great good for others and achievements far greater than Ignatius ever envisioned.” Once more, unlike Robert Burns, who saw “grief ‘an pain,” rather than the “promised joy” of the original plan, Ignatius found profound meaning, purpose, and yes, joy, in following Plan B.
Sometimes we can only see a Divine hand in our life when we look through the rearview mirror. But, the process itself often leads us to a place we could never have imagined unless we were first on the path to implementing different plan.
As we begin a new year filled with our “best made schemes,” perhaps we can remind each other that our plans wil point us down a path that may change direction into something unforeseen. Should this happen, may we hold to our original plans gently enough to make room for a greater Plan that may break into our life.
~ Dean Mark S. Markuly
Seattle University, School of Theology and Ministry
*Rev. Gerald Fagin, S.J., “Surrendering to God’s Plan for Us,” Human Development. Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 2005