Whenever you pray, say, “Father, may your name be holy! May your kingdom come!”
Luke 11: 2
Today we continue the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet. He first rejects God’s call to serve the despised people of Nineveh, and now, somewhat forced to obey through extraordinary circumstances, he is enraged at God’s mercy toward them. The one consolation he had was that God would bring down fire and brimstone on these depraved people, but instead he witnesses God’s mercy and forgiveness toward them. If this is divine justice, says Jonah, “It is better for me to die than to live.” As the story continues we see that God begins to teach Jonah that he himself lives only by the love and mercy of God, so why should he be so insistent that so many others should be loved any less?
In every day, but perhaps especially in ours where religious fundamentalism threatens the lives of so many, the story of Jonah is a cautionary tale. Whatever the tradition, there are always those who claim to be believers and servants of God, but in large part are believers in a God of their own creation. From this perspective, we want to serve a God who justifies us and who makes us somehow special and superior over others. We demand to be special to God and that God prove to us our distinctive place by punishing and despising the others.
Jesus’ first words as he responds to the disciples’ request to be taught how to pray are a call to overcome this basic distortion. It is God’s name and God’s kingdom that is holy and primary. It is up to us to reorder our minds and wills and submit them to God’s will, not demand that God submit God’s will to ours. How do we come to grow in obedience, to begin to learn what is God’s will and so begin to recognize the disorder and narcissism of our own? When I was young, catechetical instruction often referred to “the duties of our state in life.” Although this phrase is not all that familiar today, it has much to teach us about obedience and the transformation of will.
Last evening I spoke with a good friend who is also a vowed religious. He was anticipating yet another long trip in order to do his work in Europe. He has had many moves in the past year, and so I mentioned how difficult it had to be for him to be “displaced” yet again. HIs response struck me in its directness and simplicity: “We just do it.” At that moment I realized that the primary point was not how one thinks or feels about the call of one’s duty; rather, we are to just “do it” and allow the pain and difficulty involved to form our heart and will, and thus to bring them into accord with God’s will. It reminded me of a good friend and former student whose duties as a father of a family led him in what should have been the peak of his working and earning potential to leave his work to be full-time with a terminally ill child.
We have no special claim to knowing and understanding God’s will, and our propensity to self-deception leads us often to conflate God’s will with ours. What we risk losing in our contemporary understanding is that it is through our life commitments and the duties they impose on us that we are drawn out of our self-absorption and into the actual world of God’s will. Many times it is a matter of “just doing” what we are called to do — and then to allow ourselves to be formed by the suffering and struggle that this counter to our will evokes in us.
“If you allow yourself to be formed by God through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life, you will experience a liberation and a freedom never before imagined.” These words of the Fundamental Principles sound beautiful in the abstract. In fact, allowing ourselves to be formed means the burning and purgation of all that is self-centered in us. To learn that God’s ways are not our ways and yet are “the way” is often a process of suffering the loss of what we want and much of what we think we need. Yet, this is the only way to come to know the truth of God’s loving mercy and forgiveness in and for us all.
I believe that, since the devil sees there is no path that leads more quickly to the highest perfection than obedience, he sets up many annoyances and difficulties under the color of good. Note this well and you will see clearly that I am speaking the truth. The highest perfection obviously does not consist in interior delights or in great raptures or in visions or in the spirit of prophecy but in having our will so much in conformity with God’s will that there is nothing we know He wills that we do not want with all our desire, and in accepting the bitter as happily as we do the delightful when we know that His Majesty desires it. This seems most difficult (not the doing of it, but this being content with what completely contradicts our nature); and indeed it truly is difficult. But love has this strength if it is perfect, for we forget about pleasing ourselves in order to please the one we love. And truly this is so; for even though the trials may be very great, they become sweet when we know we are pleasing God. And this is the way by which those who have reached this stage love persecutions, dishonor, and offenses. This is so certain, so well known, and so plain that there is no reason for me to delay over the matter.
St. Teresa of Avila, The Foundations, III, 10.