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Our Father: Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven

Tuesday, October 28, 2014
                                   “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

So familiar is recitation of the Lord's Prayer to many of us that often, I suspect - if some readers are anything like me - we have not really tuned in, not really got around to focusing on what exactly it is we are petitioning the Lord for with these words, before we are already over half-way through the prayer and thinking about who we might be forgiving for their trespasses against us!

The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel

These are difficult words. Obviously they are not difficult to say, but they can be very difficult to mean. Throughout the history of the Church it has ever been thus. Think of Peter's confession to Jesus in Mark 8: "You are the Christ", whereupon Jesus foretells of how he must suffer, be rejected and killed, before He will rise again. And what is Peter's reaction to this? Peter has the audacity to rebuke Jesus, before being swiftly rebuked himself by Jesus with those cutting and chastening words, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men."

Peter desired that the Lord's will be conformed to his – to his ideas of what the Messiah should be and this desire has remained prevalent to this day. To will what God wishes is hard. It is much easier to pray that God would will what we wish. And yet, whilst we go on doing this, we will not become truly Christ-like; in fact, we will grow apart from him. We must aspire to follow the example of Christ at Gethsemane who said: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.” This is Jesus perfectly living out the perfect prayer He taught us.

Dominikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) - Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
The Agony in the Garden, El Greco

The first stage in living out this petition has to manifest itself in an earnest to desire to learn what it is that the Father wills. Again, to do this, we are best to follow the Lord’s example; to pray and to be familiar with the scriptures. The Father’s will is not necessarily ours! Thomas Aquinas reminds us, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, that the third gift which the Holy Spirit works in us is called the gift of knowledge. He goes on to say that “among all that goes to make up knowledge and wisdom in man, the principal wisdom is that man should not depend solely upon his own opinion.” We can know the truth, but we do not always find it by contemplating our own desires.

This takes humility; as St Thomas goes on to say: ‘Out of humility one does not trust one's own knowledge: "Where humility is there is also wisdom." (Proverbs 11:2) The proud trust only themselves. Now, the Holy Spirit, through the gift of wisdom, teaches us that we do not our own will but the will of God. It is through this gift that we pray of God that His "will be done on earth as it is in heaven." And in this is seen the gift of knowledge.’

Now the second part of fulfilling this petition is perhaps the most difficult. To will God’s will over our own when the two are in conflict is challenging. But paradoxically this is the only way that we will ever be truly free. Whilst we are slaves to our own wills, we will never obtain the freedom that Christ promises, we will never be our true selves; we will never allow grace to perfect our nature.

But conforming our will to His is easier said than done. It is not an easy thing to confront greatness. We can struggle enough when we find it in another person, let alone when we contemplate our finitude in relation to God. If we are not careful this can discourage, even paralyse, for the greatness of the other makes me feel my own littleness, perhaps even deluding ourselves that we don't really matter. Goethe said that there is only one defence against great superiority, and that is love. And perhaps this is true, for it is only love of Christ that can help us partake in the divine life. But Fr Romano Guardini wonders whether this covers the entirety of the matter; for it may not always be possible to love. He suggests that it may be more correct to say that the best defence against great superiority consists in truth and reverence, which say: “He is great, I am not. But it is good that greatness should be, even if it is not in me but in another.” Then there is an open space, and envy disappears.

As I write this, I think of how much pressure there is on the Church to change its teaching and its practice. I cannot help but think that what we are witnessing is largely as a result of the desire that God be more like us. We find something hard or requiring heroic qualities and we wish that God did not will it that way. We delude ourselves that because God’s mercy overflows, that He can no longer judge. We forget that mercy cannot exist without justice. We begin to think that the greatest travesty is that somebody might be put off the practise of the faith because of its difficulty. And thus we seek to argue why God’s will must be for us to remain in whatever state we are in, and that the Church’s teaching should alter to condone us in our sin, not call us out of it, at the same time abandoning the notion of conforming ourselves to Christ.

St Martin de Porres OP feeds the poor, Holy Cross Dominican Priory, Leicester

Archbishop Charles Chaput wisely reminded us recently about what happens when we ignore Jesus’s teaching: “If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell. If we blind ourselves to their suffering, we will go to hell. If we do nothing to ease their burdens; then we will go to hell. Ignoring the needs of the poor among us is the surest way to dig a chasm of heartlessness between ourselves and God, and ourselves and our neighbours.” And he goes on to say that whilst all are welcome in the Church “we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian—you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.” Only if we truly heed these words can we pray with integrity: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


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