Circular Letter: Summer 1999
Father, Thy Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven
The Height of Happiness
I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is in the depths of my heart” (Ps 39,9).
The Father’s will was Jesus’ supreme happiness. Only something infinitely good could make us completely and totally happy. God, of course, is the infinite good and the only possible source of everlasting happiness. Still, we do well to ask why the Will of God in particular should be the object of our happiness. The answer is very simple. Some thing infinitely good would not suffice to make us completely happy. Happiness can only come about in a personal relationship with someone who is infinitely good, and who in his goodness (love) desires to give himself to us and equally desires the gift of our love. Happiness can only be found in a communion of hearts (wills). Since the will of God is the source of all goodness in creation and therefore in us, we can only be happy when we find our way back into that source of eternal goodness. This we must do by uniting our will to His. Small children understand this in their simplicity: happiness is inconceivable outside of the arms of their mother and father. Yet, even if a mother should forget her child, God will not forget us (cf. Is 49,15). All fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives from God, our heavenly Father (cf. Eph 3,14-15).
When we pray that the Father’s will be done, we ultimately pray for the complete realization of His plan, for the gift of happiness, for the gift of Gifts, for God Himself, Whom we can only possess in the measure we surrender ourselves to His will. We do not pray in order to bend God’s will to ours, nor do we even merely wish for the strength to follow His commandments, act by act. No, we want to be conformed to His will, for we are concerned with the reign of God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven”.
This intimate connection between the Kingdom and the Will of God is so strong that St. Luke does not even include this third petition in the Our Father after the petition for the coming of the Kingdom. Why? Evidently because the coming of the Kingdom is inseparable from the fulfillment of God’s will; they are like the two sides of a single coin.
The Kingdom, once lost through disobedience, is restored only through the consummate fulfillment of the Father’s will, which Christ accomplished in His Holy Passion. In the face of the Father’s will to obedience unto death upon the Cross, Jesus Himself was filled with anguish and prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from Me, yet not My will, but Thine be done!” (Lk 22,42). By dying on the Cross, He “learned obedience” (cf. Heb 5,8), that is, He overcame all resistance to suffering in His Body so that He could submit Himself absolutely to the Father in His created humanity. Only then could He triumphantly proclaim victory over death ? “Consummatum est!” (Jn 19,30). He submitted Himself to the Father, St. Paul tells us, so that God be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15, 28). This is the Kingdom in which God’s will reigns sovereignly, and we in Him, as coheirs of Christ!
United with Christ and desiring the final triumph over sin and death, which will one day definitively inaugurate the Kingdom, we pray, saying “Father, Thy will be done!” As such it is an awesome petition, for while asking for a throne of glory, we dare desire, with the help of His grace, to share in drinking His chalice. Let us petition the Father with Christ to send us an Angel with a chalice of strength, so that in life and death we might be perfectly conformed to the Father’s will. All other intentions are included in subordination to this goal of the glorious reign of God’s will.
The Preciousness of the Gift
There was once a little girl whose father was so pleased with her comportment and demeanor that he took her to the store one day and invited her to pick out a present: “My dear, you have been such a good child, that I want to buy you a present. Pick out whatever you want!”
“Daddy,” she replied, “I want the present you give me!” Not understanding what she meant, he encouraged her again: “Go ahead, my dear, pick out whatever pleases you most!” Whereupon she insisted anew with the urgency of love: “But, Daddy, the one that pleases me most is the one you pick out for me!”
Such is the perfection of love, that it delights much more in the giver than in the gift. The gift is precious precisely in that it comes from the beloved. Ideally, this is how we ought to pray, “Father, Thy will be done”, because this is what pleases us most!
What does God will?
The expression of God’s will in creation is fourfold: His purpose, His commandments, His counsels and His inspirations.
First, the Divine Purpose
“This is the will of God, your sanctification!” (1 Thes 4,3), for,“God our Savior,… wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2,4). To this end, Christ died for us sinners. “Father, how wonderful Your care for us! How boundless Your merciful love! To ransom a slave You gave away Your Son” (Easter Canticle). And so we pray in this petition for salvation.
God’s will for salvation calls for our free response, the first step of which is faith: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him [Jesus Christ] Whom He has sent” (Jn 6,29). And so we also pray in this petition for faith and its increase.
We receive the divine gift of faith through the Church and in communion with her enjoy the means of salvation: The Church is one: “It is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone,… that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God” (Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism. 3,5). And so we also pray for the growth of the Church, the reunion of all Christians and the conversion of sinners.
Second, the Divine Commandments
Behold the delightful command! God has commanded us to love Him, Who is infinitely good, with all our mind, heart, will and strength (cf. Dt 6,5). In love we give ourselves to Him, desiring that He, His will, be everything in us. Further, when we truly love Him, we will love those whom He loves, because He loves them. Christ enjoins us to “love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13,34). “This commandment,” the Catholic Catechism teaches us, “summarizes all others and expresses [the Father’s] entire will” (CCC 2822). Hence, when we pray for the fulfillment of the Father’s will, we pray that we might come to love as Christ loves.
The minimum measure of love consists in observing the commandments: “If you love Me keep My commandments” (Jn 14,15). To the rich young man Jesus said: “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments!” (Mt 19,17). When asked by the young man, “Which commandments?” Jesus responded by enumerating the 10 commandments.
The 10 commandments are the shortest articulation of moral, social law to be found in any culture or nation in the world. Alongside the positive duties to God and our parents, the commandments regulating our duties to our neighbor are formulated negatively — “thou shall not kill, not commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness, not covet your neighbor’s wife and goods” (cf. Ex ch. 20). This has led to the “sinners’ complaint”: “the commandments are too negative!”
Clearly, we should do good and avoid evil. What else can we call murder and adultery, and deceit, and thievery, and calumny, lust and envy except evil? Now God formulated these commandments negatively to make their fulfillment easier for poor sinners. Negative commandments, prohibiting particular actions, are easier to fulfill than positive commandments, which demand greater virtue. For example, it is easier not to steal from one’s neighbor, than it is to positively come to the aid of the poor by generously sharing our wealth with them.
The Old Law did not provide the moral strength to fulfill the requirements of justice (cf. Rom 3,20; 7,5ff). This strength to do the will of God comes from Christ alone: “Who will deliver me from the body of this death [in sin]? The grace of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” (Rom 7,24f; cf. Jn 1,17).
The New Law of Love in Christ challenges us in this positive fashion: “Owe to no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13, 8). The law of love exceeds the 10 commandments. Thus, St. Paul exhorts us even higher: “Bear one another’s burden, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6,2). This is why St. Paul is constantly challenging the early Christians to live the virtues, patience, meekness, peacefulness, chastity, humility, etc. It is the Father’s will that we bear much fruit (cf. Jn 15,8). Accordingly, when we pray for the fulfillment of the Father’s will, we pray for the grace to obey the commandments and for an increase in virtue.
What is the measure for love and the virtues? The example of Christ! “Greater love hath no one than that he lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15,13). The Apostle John concludes from this that we too should be willing to surrender all our temporal goods for the sake of the salvation of our neighbor: “By this we know love, that He lay down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn 3,16).
Such heroic love which perfectly configures us to Christ is a singular gift of grace which must be besought in prayer: “Thy will be done!”
Third, God’s Holy Counsels
All the faithful are commanded to be perfect, even as the heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5,48; Rom 12,2; Jas 1,4). Perfection consists in charity alone. Beyond the commandments God also offers and invites the faithful to embrace even more perfect means to love Him with an undivided heart and to serve His Kingdom on earth, the Church. These means are called the counsels. Principal among these are the evangelical counsels or the vows of religious life. Christ’s invitation to the rich young man was in view of a greater intimacy with Him: “If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor,… and come follow Me!” (Mt 19,21).
The counsels distinguish themselves from the commandments in this:
“A commandment bears witness to a most complete and urgent will in the one who orders it, but a counsel represents only a will of desire. A commandment renders its transgressors culpable, but a counsel renders those who do not follow it less worthy of praise. …when we command we use our authority to impose obligation; when we recommend, we make use of friendship to persuade and exhort. A commandment imposes strict obligation; counsel and recommendation arouse us to something of greater utility. …We follow counsels in order to please, but commandments lest we displease. …A loving heart does not accept a counsel because of some practical advantage but to conform to the counselor’s desire and render him the homage due his will” (St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on Love, VIII,6).
“All the counsels are given for the perfection of the Christian people, but not for that of each individual” (ibid.). One may refrain from personally embracing the counsels without guilt, but one may not despise or belittle God’s counsels without pride and guilt. Clearly, all the faithful should acknowledge the wisdom and beauty of all God’s counsels. And since we should love the Gospel in its integrity, we should esteem the evangelical counsels and encourage those who are free and capable of following the consecrated life to do so, for they are very good (ibid. VIII,9) and present a better and easier path of perfection (cf. 1 Cor 7,26ff). Therefore, in this third petition, let us pray for an increase in vocations and a deep reverence before the gift of the consecrated life.
It is frightful to despise the Gifts of God
A woman once approached Don Bosco with her three sons, asking him what would become of each of them. Prophetically, Don Bosco responded, assuring her first that the one son would become a successful lawyer, and the other would become a successful doctor. This pleased the mother immensely.
Don Bosco then took the smallest son into his arms and explained that the finest lot had fallen to the youngest, since he was called to be a priest. The mother was horrified at the thought and exclaimed: “A priest! I’d rather he’d be dead, than be a priest!” “Woman,” returned Don Bosco, “you have committed a very great sin.” “Indeed,” he continued in the same prophetic spirit, “your son will die very young, for you have despised the gift of God!” The woman was deeply troubled at this, and begged pardon. “May God forgive you your sin,… nevertheless, the child will die and God will take him to Himself, for you were not found worthy to have a child clothed with the greatest possible vocation, the priesthood!”
And sure enough, a short time thereafter the child fell sick and died, felled as it were by his mother’s blasphemous curse.
Fourth, the Inspirations of Divine Grace
The inspirations of grace agree with the counsels in being invitations, not commands.
“[An] inspiration is a heavenly ray that brings into our hearts a warm light that makes us see the good and fires us on to its pursuit!” (Treatise,VIII, 10). They come in thousands of forms.”Oh, how happy are they who keep their hearts open to holy inspirations! They never lack those necessary to them in order to live well and devoutly according to their professions. … [God] gives to each of us the inspirations needed to live, work, and preserve ourselves in the spiritual life” (ibid).
These can be extraordinary in nature, such as an inspiration to found a religious community, as did Mother Teresa in our day. Other great inspirations can influence the course of history, like the inspiration of Pope John Paul II to consecrate the world to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the three years of preparation in honor of the Blessed Trinity for the Jubilee 2000.
There are also common inspirations of grace, to which we want to restrict our present reflection. The ordinary inspirations are the actual graces which incline us to more particular good works and to a more generous, even heroic, practice of a particular virtue. Not everyone is called to fast like St. Mary of Egypt, but we should consider what mortification would be pleasing to God, after all “All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance” (Canon Law, cn 1249). Not everybody can stand on a column of stone in the desert for 38 years like St. Simon Stylite, but we could be moved to commit ourselves regularly to an hour of eucharistic adoration. We do not have an opportunity to become missionaries like St. Francis Xavier, but we could feel moved to join the Legion of Mary or some other apostolate to help spread the Faith.
St. Francis de Sales closely associates, if not identifies, such ordinary inspirations with ‘holy desires’ (cf. Treatise, VIII, 11; cf. Introduction to the Devout Life, III, 37) and assures us that they are common and significant indications of the will of God in our lives. The difficulty arises with the discernment of such things, for the danger of deception by the enemy and even of self-deception is not small. Yet, it does no good to bury one’s head in the sand; Sts. Paul and John both instruct us to test the spirits and keep what is good, since it comes from God (cf. 1 Jn 4,1; 1 Thes 5,21).
In a later series of Circulars we want to take up in depth the discernment of spirits. Presently, it will suffice to review the rules St. Francis de Sales gives for the proper discernment of the common motions of grace and desires for the good. The first is too evident: we should desire only that which is good. Among good things, though, we should also avoid desiring honors, responsibility, visions and ecstasies, for in these things there is much danger of vanity and deception.
Similarly, we should avoid desiring goods which are far off or only remotely possible, for these lead to dissipation and sadness; moreover, we fail to do the good at hand. To this latter danger the soul is especially vulnerable when its present situation is rather trying, as for example, when the unhappily married dream of becoming religious. “What good is there in this?” St. Francis asks. For all those already committed to a state in life he radically opposes any musing about a change in vocation (cf. Introduction, III,37). A common temptation related to this may plague devout religious, namely, the desire to run off to a more contemplative life, to the Grand Chartreuse or to Carmel.
Similarly, there is often much delusion in the way individuals desire the Cross: they dream about becoming a great martyr, but fail, for example, to bear with faithful resignation the little crosses of daily life or to stand up and defend the Magisterium of the Holy Father.
One of the best marks of an inspiration is that it moves the soul to fervor, constancy and perseverance in the ordinary virtues. The good of the spiritual life is not many different beginnings, but a high degree of perfection in the virtues proper to our state in life. “The enemy often tries to make us attempt and start many projects so that we will be overwhelmed with too many tasks, and therefore achieve nothing and leave everything unfinished” (Treatise, VIII, 11). At other times he simply suggests that we undertake projects that are evidently beyond our talents, so that we not only fail in them, but also fail to do the good within our reasonable reach.
“One of the best marks of the goodness of all inspirations and especially the extraordinary is peace and tranquility of heart“ (ibid. 12), for the Holy Spirit works suavely. The enemy often tries to simulate this peace, but he cannot simultaneously reproduce the fear of the Lord and the humility which accompanies divine grace (ibid. 13). In grace the soul delights in the Lord, whereas the counterfeits of the enemy are saccharine and self-exalting.
Finally, there is no surer sign of the divine origin of an inspiration than simple, gentle docility in holy obedience to legitimate authority. “In obedience everything is safe; apart from obedience all is subject to suspicion. When God sends His inspirations into a man’s heart, the first one He gives is that of obedience.” (ibid. 13).
“To sum up, the three best and surest marks of lawful inspiration are perseverance in contrast to inconstancy and levity, peace and gentleness of heart in contrast to disquiet and solicitude [i.e., agitated eagerness], and humble obedience in contrast to obstinacy and extravagance” (ibid. 13). And so when we pray that God’s will be done, we also request discernment and fidelity to the inspirations of His grace.
The Angels and the Will of God
We pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Pope St. Pius V explains, “We also pray for the standard and model of this obedience, that our conformity to the will of God be regulated according to the rule observed in heaven by the blessed Angels and choirs of heavenly spirits, that, as they willingly and with supreme joy obey God, we too may yield a cheerful obedience to His will in the manner most acceptable to Him” (Cat. of Trent. ‘Our Father’, 3rd petition).
Furthermore, it is commonly understood that — “on earth as it is in heaven” — applies to the first three petitions: Christ presents the holy Angels as our models in holy obedience, in the glorification of God’s name and as model citizens of His Kingdom in heaven (cf. St. Thomas, Catena Aurea, Mt 6,7).
In our behalf, the Law was communicated through the holy Angels (cf. Gal 3,19; Heb 2,2; Act 7,53). More importantly the Angels are sent to guide us in the way of the Divine Will:
“Behold I send an Angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for He will not pardon your transgression, for My name is in him. But if you hearken attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Ex 23,20ff). God directs us through the ministry of the Angels and even conditions His further graces upon our cooperation with the holy Angels.
Concerning this type of angelic help to know and fulfill the will of God St. John of the Cross writes: “Reflect, that your Guardian Angel does not always move your desire for an action [that is, by way of consolations], but he does always enlighten your reason. Hence, in order to practice virtue do not wait until you feel like it, for your reason and intellect are sufficient”, that is, with the helping light of the Angel (Sayings, nr. 34).
For as St. Thomas affirms: “Man can of his own accord fall into sin; but he cannot advance in merit without the Divine assistance, which is borne to man by the ministry of the Angels. For this reason the Angels take part in all our good works” (Summa, I.114,3,3m; cf. CCC. 350).
In short, without the help of the Angels we cannot effectively fulfill the will of God and grow in grace towards salvation. Hence, the holy Angels have an important ministry in helping us know and accomplish the will of the Father. For this help too we should humbly pray, as it is clearly the Father’s will to send the Angels to our assistance.
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