Monday, September 5, 2011

The hardest prayer to understand

… consists of just four words: “Thy Will be done.”

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the truth of this as my younger brother, Bob, struggles with his own body to live just a bit longer, as the “awe-inspiring prince, That keep’st the world in fear”[1] now beckons him towards the final journey. Whether this is truly the end game, or whether the grim specter is simply reminding us of his presence, those four words remain like a bitter cup of medicine we must yet drain.

The hardest thing to remember about God is that, by the very nature of our beings, we are not and cannot be equal partners with Him. An intelligent Being with the power to design and call into existence such a multifarious and bewildering universe is not a Being whose mind we can ever fully comprehend. What He does and allows to be done, and the purposes for which He does so, we can know in neither depth nor detail. Even the revelation given to us by Christ in his gospel message has ramifications and transcendent implications that push the limits of human ken; if we’re wise, we don’t pretend it’s a complete explanation of God’s Will.

The worst thing about liberal Catholicism, or “Catholicism Lite”, is that it minimizes the transcendent grandeur of God and the mystery of the Trinity, boiling it down to a “walk with Jesus” as if we were strolling hand-in-hand with him on a boardwalk or a forest path, rather than carrying the heavy beams of our own crosses down the travertine-flagged streets of the Via Dolorosa in his footsteps.

The gospel message doesn’t seek to deny suffering, or minimize its devastation, or explain it away with a lot of happy talk, or make fatuous promises of health and wealth in exchange for prayer and worship. Rather, it tells us that there is a purpose and a reason for it, as difficult as that reason and purpose may be to comprehend let alone embrace. It tells us that we matter, that our lives and actions matter, that “no one lives, and no one dies, save in the embrace of God’s love”.

As a consequence of this, we must matter to each other. Or, rather, that others must matter to us.

But even if we deny the truth of the gospel message, it still follows that a God of sufficient intelligence and power to make and sustain the universe would still know more than we can ever hope to. We are at a perpetual disadvantage to judge such a God’s acts:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements — surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? … Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the [constellations] in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth” (Job 38:4-7, 31-33)?

Denial and hatred of such a God are futile: they are the definition and acme of futility. Criticism of His plans and actions, to be just and wise, would require our knowing what He knows … even knowing more than He knows: a foolish, hubristic conceit. If we can’t know what it’s like to be so simple a creature as a bat, how much less can we know what it’s like to be God!

“Thy Will be done” accepts our lack of understanding. It submits us to a reality that is often and in many ways beyond our control. It acknowledges the inequality of our relationship to God, that what we have He was under no onus or obligation to give.

“As we bless God for the good, so we must bless Him for the evil.” Those are the words of the Talmud. They’re words beyond understanding, but if we cannot say them, we cannot hope. Bitterness, yes … but hopelessness, no. The Jewish way is to bless and to hope, and to bless and to hope, until blessing and hope surmount the pain and even the bitterness, and the living learn how to go on. … God is righteous. God is good. It’s people who sometimes forget; who let evil rule them; who lose the sense of the image of God within them and become beasts of prey.[2]

So whatever the next few days bring, whether it be full recovery or a funeral, my family and I place Bob’s care in God’s hands and subject ourselves to His will. “And if you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve …; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Thy Kingdom come; Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.
All you angels and saints, pray for us.

[1] From “My Childhood-Home I See Again”, a little-known poem by Abraham Lincoln.
[2] Mel Mermelstein, By Bread Alone: The Story of A-4685, cit. in Roy H. Schoeman, Salvation is from the Jews: The Role of Judaism in Salvation History from Abraham to the Second Coming (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), p. 147.