THE LORD’S PRAYER: The Will, by Evelyn Underhill

Meditations Based on the Lord's Prayer

The Will Evelyn Underhill

The graph of Christian prayer conforms very closely to the central action of the Eucharist.  First, the Sanctus, the type of all adoring worship “with angels and archangels glorifying the Holy Name” and lifting heart and mind to the contemplation of Reality.  Then the bread and wine, the ordinary stuff of life raised to the plane of scarifice and freely offered that it may be blessed and transformed by the action of the Holy, made the food and salvation of the soul.  And now we stand at the central point on which all this is poised: where the Heavenly prayer and the Earthly prayer meet.  Our Father, which art in Heaven….  Thy Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.  That Will: that mysterious attribute of the Living Godhead of which a little crumb is given to men, in order that it may be united in love to the Whole from which it came.  Once again the priority of the Holy, the overruling interests of the Transcendent are reaffirmed as the very substance of the creature’s adoring prayer.

With this prayer for the Will to be done on Earth as in Heaven, the soul is brought to a more complete self-opening and a new and personal cooperation with God: and with this to a new and creaturely conviction of its own helplessness, its fundamental need.  For only the Logos, the express image of his Person, can do in perfection the Father’s Will.  So here, we pray for union with his indwelling spirit.  Anima Christi sanctifica me!  [Soul of Christ, sanctify me.]  Accept and transform my small energy of desire that it may become part of thy great energy of desire.  Only thus can I achieve the end for which I was made, and make my tiny contribution to the redemption of the world.

Fiat voluntas tua. [Thy will be done.] We cannot miss the dynamic note, the drive, indeed the passion in these words.  They should be remembered by those who tell us, with a particularly unfortunate resort to the dangers of arbitrary choice, that our business as immortal spirits is to Be rather than Do.  For in fact our very being involves us in activity.  We are placed in succession, and within succession must actualize our deep instinct for the Real; must exercise the will, and use our responsibility of choice.  We cannot call a halt.  On the one hand we hold fast to the Abiding; on the other, we are required to do the will in and through serial acts.  A tension, a duality, is inevitable for us; we are the unstable, striving agents of a quiet unchanging Love.  Thus only the Christian synthesis of Grace and Nature, Faith, and Works, the working of the eternal within the transitory, meets the situation which is envisaged in this prayer for the unhindered accomplishment of the purposes of God.  The true focus of desire for all deeply loving souls must be this triumph of the Will by the self-surrender and arduous perfecting, the deliberate sacrificial deeds of the creature in response to the Light sent forth and the Grace given.

We have come down in the course of our prayer from the Infinite to the Finite, from the splendor of God, his present yet unseizable loveliness, to our distracted world; which is meant to be part of that splendor, to radiate that loveliness.  Here is the scene in which his will to perfection must be worked out through us, by us, in spite of us.  Thy will be done in Earth, as it is in Heaven.  We do not know what possibilities, what mysteries, may still be hidden in the unexpressed design.  Yet because each step of this descending prayer is a movement of faith, obedience, and love, we bring the Infinite with us; as did Christ himself when he came down from his nights of communion on the mountain to his redemptive work among men.  Here, again, the life of prayer follows the path of the Incarnation.  The Wisdom that came forth from the mouth of the Most High entered deeply into the common life, and there accomplished his transforming and redeeming work.  We too are not to experience eternity and take up our obligations in respect of it in some exalted other-worldly region; but here and now, right down in that common life which is also dear to God, finding in our homely experience the raw material of sacrifice, turning its humble duties and relationships into prayer.  Be it unto me according to thy Word – here, where I am.  Not my will but thine be done.  This is the act of oblation which puts life without condition at God’s disposal, and so transforms and sacramentalizes our experience, and brings the Kingdom in.

Here we arrive at a prayer of pure realism, which is also the prayer of confident love: for what the Will may be, and what it may entail for us, we do not know.  The enthusiastic forward look toward the coming of the Kingdom, the triumph of the Perfect, is easy; less easy, the acceptance of those conditions through and in which it must enter and dominate the lives of men.  But if adoration has indeed done its disentangling work, no hesitations will mar this simple movement of abandonment.  Thy Will: I accept the rule of God, whatever it may be, for myself, as well as working for it – the prayer of docility.  That means a total capitulation to the mysterious Divine purpose; war declared on individual and corporate self-centeredness, death to an Earthbound, meticulous, or utilitarian piety.  It asks of the soul a heroic and liberating dedication to the interests of Reality; that, transcending the problems and needs of our successive existence, we may be made partners in the one august enterprise of the Spirit.  This, says Saint Paul, is the very meaning of the Passion: That they which live shall no longer live unto themselves.  Wherefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature – his interests have become identical with those of the supernatural world.  Our wills are ours to make them thine, is not a mere bit of Victorian moralizing, but an almost perfect description of man’s metaphysical state.  We ask for our own subordination to Reality, the neutralizing of the rebel will, the deep grace of abandonment.  For only “in Christ” are the Absolute Will and the will of the creature plaited together, to make a single cord of love.

We all have a preconceived idea of the path which we are to follow, the way in which we shall use our talents best.  But in the world of prayer, our eyes cleansed by adoration, we perceive and acknowledge that the initiative lies with God; and only with us insofar as we give our energy to him and take our inheritance as Children of God, recognizing and welcoming his quiet directive action, his steady pressure within life as the only thing that really matters about it.  Nor is this recognition possible to any but those whose surrender is complete.  There is no more certain way of going wrong, says J. N. Grou, than to take for the Will of God all which comes into our hearts or passes through our minds.  This means death to self-will however cunningly disguised; the work that we love done with zest and care, but done God’s way not ours, at his pace not ours, for his glory not ours, and laid down without reluctance, as the movement of the Will demands.  Also the drudgery that we do not love done too, because that is his will and not ours.  Going into business with the single talent which we would prefer to keep clean and unsullied by the rough and tumble of life.  Substituting the discipline of the workshop for the freelance activities of the gifted amateur.  Taking on the job that needs doing, the machine that needs tending, and tending it in the right way, even though it gives little scope to our particular gifts; or accepting the situation quietly, when the job which we seemed to be doing rather well is taken away.  Thy Will be done means always being ready for God’s sudden No over against our eager and well-meaning Yes: his overruling of our well-considered plans for the increase of his glory and advancement of his Kingdom, confronting us with his Cross – and usually an unimpressive Cross – at the least appropriate time.  All self-willed choices and obstinacy, all feverish intensity drawn out of the work which we supposed to be work for him; so that it becomes more and more his work in us.  The glorious majesty of the Lord our God be upon us.  Then our handiwork will prosper; not otherwise.

A strange reversal of fortune, the frustration of obviously excellent plans, lies behind most of the triumphs of Christian history.  It was by an unlikely route that Christ himself, the country carpenter, itinerant preacher, and victim of local politics, carried humanity up into God.  It was in defiance alike of the probable and the suitable that Saint Paul was chosen, seized, transmuted, and turned to the purposes of the Will.  Stephen, full of grace and power, is snatched in the splendor of his faith to God; and his Will is achieved and the Roman Catholic Church is created by the abrupt conversion of a brilliant young scholar to a small revivalist sect.  If we think of Saint Paul’s situation at the opening of his apostolic life  – the humiliating eating of his own words, the long-lived suspicion and unpopularity, and his constancy through it all – it becomes clear that only the immense pressure of God’s Will, overwhelming all natural reluctances and desires, can account for it.  Nor did the rest of Saint Paul’s life, mostly spent in exhausting, dangerous, and often disappointing labors, contain much food for ambition or self-love.  Christian history looks glorious in retrospect; but it is made up of constant hard choices and unattractive tasks, accepted under the pressure of the Will.  In the volume of the book it is written of me, that I should fulfill thy Will, O my God: I am content to do it. (Psalm 40:10)

Sometimes this total dedication to the purposes of the Will means the vigorous, self-sacrificing work of the active life, carried up to heroic levels.  Sometimes it means that same life, which seemed so devoted and so effective, turned into the deep and beautiful surrender of the passive life.  This is a transformation which the practical Christian finds very hard to understand.  What is the good of it?  God is the good of it.  He is Pure Being as well as Pure Act, and therefore that apparently passive life, since it gives him undisputed sway, unhindered passage, is in fact the most fully active life; for the action is that of God, and so has nothing in it with which to feed our self-esteem.  When our fussy surface activity, our restless volition ceases, we realize beneath it the deep unceasing action of the mysterious Will, Master of the Tides, real doer of all that is done.

Sometimes the mortification of selfhood, the demand for acceptance, docility, and trust goes deeper and strikes at the center of the soul’s action; its willed response in prayer to God.  Then, all those practices and feelings which it had too easily identified with its spiritual life are swept away.  It is left in a great emptiness and silence, there to learn the ultimate lessons of self-abandonment; the entire subordination of the creature’s small action and choices to the vast Divine action and choices, and therefore a quiet acceptance of God’s firm yet gentle pressures on the life he is molding to his Will.  Thus only can it actualize within experience the truth which rules and clarifies the whole of human existence: the sublime and effortless action of the Eternal Life and Love supporting, penetrating, and overruling all individual striving and achievement.

Jean Pierre de Caussade says:

All that is done in us, around us, and by us contains and conceals the action of God.  There it is most truly and certainly present, but invisible; so that it always surprises us, and we only recognize its working when it is withdrawn.  If we could pierce the veil, and were alert and attentive, God would show himself to us without ceasing, and we should realize his action in all that happens to us.  To each thing we should say, “Dominus est.”  It is the Lord.  And we should find in every circumstance that we had received a gift from God.  We should consider all creatures as feeble tools in the hands of an all-powerful craftsman, and should easily recognize that we lack nothing, and that God’s continual care gives us at each moment that which is best for us.

So, thy Will be done, while it includes and sanctifies the life of eager cooperation, leads out beyond this to the more difficult and powerful life of active surrender and acceptance.  Crucifying the flesh with the desires thereof, says Saint Paul; a drastic prescription for the redemption of human life.  Crucifying, condemning, and executing, not sins alone but Sin; all those personal desires, ambitions, plans, preferences, and affections which make us separate, self-acting entities instead of living cells of the Body of Christ.  Even the deepest desire of the creature, its profound hunger for God, is to be borne unsatisfied; until by his choice and movement, not ours, it is satisfied.  An interior life conceived on these lines does not mean an easy peace, a consoling religion.  It means the fullest, most unquestioning abandonment possible to the soul as the only path to union with God.  This abandonment is learned first through those small tests and deprivations which provide, as it were, a preliminary gymnastic of the Spirit; increasing in difficulty with our growth and gradually producing that suppleness, that easy docility to circumstance, which is a mark of the surrendered soul.  All our spiritual and intellectual action is included in the material on which this exacting discipline must work: prayer, thought, movements of love and hate, pity, resentment, patience, wrath.  Also darkness, interior suffering, and temptation; the tumult, pain, even rebellion which come from the impact of God’s Perfection on the imperfect and unstable soul of man.  Indeed, since there is for man no tension and no problem when God’s Will and human preference happen to agree, and in fact the drive and demand of the Will is then hardly perceived by us, it follows that it is most often in suffering, willed and accepted, that the real transcendence of egoism is accomplished.  This does not mean that suffering is in itself holy; but that, being what we are, it nearly always accompanies our full acceptance of the Holy and its tremendous demands.

And the last Will is to be done “as in Heaven”; peacefully, joyfully, perfectly, the response of a deep and disciplined love.  Here, in this pure and disinterested relation of spirit to Spirit, is the clue to life’s meaning, For to step into pure relation is not to disregard everything, but to see everything in the Thou, not to renounce the world but to establish it on its true basis. (Martin Buber)  It is not in observing and accepting the drift of the Cosmos, but in replying to the strange Voice which speaks from within and beyond the Cosmos that we are to find our peace.  Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. [Be it done unto me according to thy word.]  Not “its mysterious laws” but “thy mysterious Word.”

F. Osuna says:

This is the fiat of the Blessed Virgin, in which consists the highest perfection of love, whose end is to conform us entirely in all things, whether in prosperity or adversity, with all our heart to the Beloved.  So that we not only suffer patiently and with an entire conformity whatever happens, but we pray that what we did not wish for may be done, for love delights no less in what God does in opposition to its prayer, than in its accomplishment.

This ultimate Christian temper of joyful abandonments to the hidden purpose of the Wholly Other perfects and establishes the theocentric orientation of the soul.  It reflects back to a deep consciousness of the already existent Kingdom, The mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I, (Martin Buber); for there is little in the texture of the successive order to evoke it.  Indeed, at every point history offers the Cross for that soul’s acceptance.  The cruelty, violence, and injustice of men win their apparent triumph; and only within and through that triumph loving acquiescence in the Will achieves, in the teeth of circumstance, a final victory.  So, too, in the individual life, the line droops, creative energy is withdrawn to reemerge in those who come after; perhaps in a form which we cannot understand or admire.  Yet none of this matters.  No personal consideration counts, so long as the Will is done.  Here egoism dies and the temper of Heaven, loving disinterestedness, is born.

Thus the Christian, if he is to find room for the completing opposites of his illogical experience, is obliged on one hand to say, Thy Will be done on, in, and through this world with which thou art present; which is by declaration the object of thy care and the garment of thy praise.  Here I accept in simplicity the mysterious drama of creation and destruction, and with that my own contribution to the great purpose which I cannot discern.  And yet, too, thy Will be done by me at all costs here and now, over against this rebel world which so decisively rejects it.  Christian life and prayer must accept this paradox, moving to and fro between abandonment and effort; for whatever we affirm in this sphere must at once be qualified by its opposite.  I have learned, said Nicholas of Cusa, that the place wherein thou art found unveiled is girt round with the coincidence of contradictories.

2 Comments on THE LORD’S PRAYER: The Will, by Evelyn Underhill

  1. This is so helpful. Thanks for sharing


    • You are most welcome. Evelyn Underhill is one of my heroes and I’ve read her most of my life. But still, posting these writings of hers on the Lord’s Prayer is blowing me away. Literally. I’m just completely wrapped up in them. Thank you for writing.


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