And if anyone hears my words and does not observe them, I do not condemn him, for I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world. Whoever rejects me and does not accept my words has something to judge him: the word that I spoke, it will condemn him on the last day, because I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and speak.John 12: 47-49
The words of Jesus today echo words that, perhaps, most of us heard sometime in our childhood from our parents, teachers, or other caregivers: “Didn’t you hear what I said to you?” This would be said to us after we had failed to do what we were told. In effect they were telling us that they were not judging us but rather the words they had spoken that we did not heed and carry out.
In one of the more familiar of her works, St. Teresa of Avila, in The Way of Perfection, does a commentary on the Our Father. So often we “say” this prayer, for many of us the first prayer we were taught, forgetting that it is Jesus’ response to the request of the disciples that he teach them how to pray. As St. Teresa makes clear, these are not words merely to be repeated but to be taken to heart and, as Jesus says, “observed.” There are times, at least in my life, where my “moments of prayer” are pretty much dissociated from the rest of my day. I can say or think “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” countless times in the course of the day but not with the kind of “resolution” that truly wills God’s will in me.
God’s will, Teresa points out, will be done. The question for us is where do we stand in relationship to that will. We can, she says, do nothing of ourselves in this regard, other than submit, that is give over, our will to God’s. This is not at all “quietism” but is rather the deepest kind of activity, the most profound act of transcendent willing of which we are capable. Teresa says that in order to do God’s will we must first plead to receive and accept “the Kingdom” from God. That is, we must displace our own willfulness with God’s will for us. This is, for her, the true significance of prayer and especially what she calls “the prayer of quiet.”
In speaking of the Our Father, Teresa says that for so many of us, we are so busy just saying the words in a rote manner that we do not allow them to sink deeply within us in such a way that our heart takes form in accordance with them. To really pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” is to allow God to fulfill God’s will in me. In The Interior Castle Teresa says that so many “good people” never receive the Kingdom from God because they talk too much in prayer. We could say that we both talk too much and, in many ways, do too much.
I often reflect on my behavior as a child and young adult. Because of my extreme shyness, I would, in social situations, avoid the tension and pain of trying to converse with people by keeping busy. I remember being surprised late in high school when a friend, whom I considered so much more sophisticated than myself, said to me during a party held at my house that I was so good at creating and hosting parties and celebrations. For many years I held on to this as a salve for my wounded sense of what I saw as my own unsociability. Yet, over time, I suspect she was also reflecting my compulsion to do things for people rather than to be with them.
This is not unlike the problem many of us have in prayer. We are so busy doing for God, talking to God, perfecting our rituals for God, that we leave no space for God to bestow the Kingdom on us. We speak often now, in fact I think far too much, of “building the Kingdom.” Yet, how do we really know whose kingdom we are building? We can only be doing God’s will when God has bestowed the Kingdom on us in such a way that we now “know” God’s will in the ways it is different from our own.
It seems to be the case with us human beings that we need to practice so to learn how to recognize that the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory are God’s and not our own. We need to learn that the deepest act of our transcendent willing is that of offering all of our will to the work of God’s bestowing of the Kingdom on us. We practice this both in act and in receptivity.
I have a friend who says that the longest trip he has to make is from his daily very active agenda, what Teresa calls our “working hard” and “making plans,” to the chair in which he meditates. To truly practice prayer and meditation is to daily tax our wills to submit to God’s will. We so rely on our own action and distraction, which we depend on for survival, that we are loath to stop and to still our own compulsions and willfulness. To return to my personal example, I was terrified at what would happen if I sat still and spoke with others. I was certain I had nothing to say and that I would disappoint them and, in turn, be disappointed and rejected by the other. If I couldn’t do for them, then what was I worth, not only to them but to myself. So it is with true prayer. When we are not producing or consuming, who are we and what are we worth?
All great teachers of prayer, Teresa included, tell us that it is only when “our house is stilled” that God can bestow the Kingdom on us. So, I well may not be doing evil, as such, with all my frantic activity, but I also may not be doing God’s will, what God would have me do in this moment. Not everything we do, even much that may be virtuous, is “building the Kingdom of God,” or, better put, serving that Kingdom.
Teresa points to an aspect of what makes the quiet and stillness so difficult for us. In “pausing” our activity, we have the experience and awareness of our life as it is, and not as we would have it. In this awareness we pray without words, as she says, “may the Lord fulfill His will in me, in every way and manner which Thou, my Lord, desirest. If Thou wilt do this by means of trials, give me strength and let them come. If by means of persecutions and sickness and dishonour and need, here I am, my Father, I will not turn my face away from Thee nor have I the right to turn my back upon them.” God’s Kingdom may often take a shape in my life that is not really acceptable to me. It is in the stillness that we learn honesty. When we are truly solitary and still, we know our idealized self for the phantom that it is. We know that all the ways we attempt to be important are “useless toil.” We are truly put in our place, the place from which we can receive God’s Kingdom and so know God’s will.
So, true prayer can only begin once we have opened a clearing in us for God to enter. What we are to clear away are all our insecurities and the pretensions that come with them. For Theodore James Ryken it was to realize, having been “put in his place” and “turned toward God,” that God loved him and summoned him, in love, to do God’s will on earth as in heaven. As long as we pretend to be someone we are not, there can be no true encounter with an other, be that God or another person. The simple but profound lyric poem of Emily Dickinson captures this truth:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
As a shy and timid adolescent, I felt appreciated and approved of when our friend spoke of how well I created environments for our celebrations. My obviously wounded eros was relieved with the experience of her “admiration.” But we soon discover that there is never enough admiration to heal our wounds. As long as I keep looking for “affirmation” from the admiring bog, I can never have a true encounter with another. As we sit in our chair, or wherever we meditate and pray, with just our poor embodied selves, we experience the “vacancy for God” that we most truly are, and of which St. Thomas speaks. When we encounter another person who is also a “nobody” who is open and vulnerable, we experience the infinite possibility that is relationship.
Recently a group of us were speaking of our life in scholastic formation. We all seemed to agree that, ironically, our scholastic “community” was one of the most competitive environments we had ever experienced. Competition arises out of our conflicting needs to be “somebody.” There can be no community, no friendship, no true encounter until we live from our vacancy, from the truth that as the world measures and as we so crave, we are nobody. Emily Dickinson says we must be quiet about that too, because even our being nobody is subject to being advertised, to becoming another manifestation of our own false form. There is, in fact, no more difficult task than becoming quiet of all our tendencies to deny our truth and exaggerate our falseness.
So often we pray for God’s Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. Today Jesus repeats what our parents so often said to us: “Didn’t you hear what I said to you?” If we are not to be condemned by the words we continually repeat, then we must practice giving up our plans and even much of our hard work, so that we can put ourselves on the line (on our chair) and in this way say with real resolution “Fiat voluntas tua.”
In this matter, as I have already said, we can do nothing of ourselves, either by working hard or by making plans, nor is it needful that we should. For everything else hinders and prevents us from saying [with real resolution], “Fiat voluntas tua”: that is, may the Lord fulfill His will in me, in every way and manner which Thou, my Lord, desirest. If Thou wilt do this by means of trials, give me strength and let them come. If by means of persecutions and sickness and dishonour and need, here I am, my Father, I will not turn my face away from Thee nor have I the right to turn my back upon them. For Thy Son gave Thee this will of mine in the name of us all and it is not right that I for my part should fail. Do Thou grant me the grace of bestowing on me Thy Kingdom so that I may do Thy will, since He has asked this of me. Dispose of me as of that which is Thine own, in accordance with Thy will.St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Chapter 33