Confirmation: Thy Will Be Done

seven sacramentsBy Baptism we call God in heaven our Father. Ordination reminds us of our highest call, to hallow his name, but Marriage points us to the call to let him be king of love of all the earth.

In the fourth petition of the Our Father, we turn to God’s will, and an opportunity for insight into the sacrament of Confirmation.

***

Now, the first key to understanding this step in the Our Father is to distinguish it from the statement before. “Thy Kingdom Come” and “Thy Will Be Done” are not the same.

Kingdom does point to authority. In Greek and Latin, if anything, the word points even more to authority. In English, “kingdom” refers to the realm over which the king rules, but in those languages, it could also refer to God’s kingship itself. But don’t let this draw you astray.

The classical tradition makes a distinction between a king and a despot. A despot does whatever he wants. But a king does what is good for his people. A classic way of saying it is, the despot rules for his own good, the king rules for the common good. Of course, a despot might call himself a king. But someone who rules for his own pleasure and not the good of his people is a despot.

(Parallel distinctions are made with other governing arrangements. An aristocracy and an oligarchy are both ruled by a small number – but the difference is whether they are ruled for the good of all the people or just the good of the few. And in the classic use of the words, when the people rule, it’s only called “democracy” if they are selfish; a “republic” is when the people care about the common good.)

The point is, the most important question is not only who rules, but why, or for what?

In other words, we miss the meaning of God’s kingship if we just say, “he’s the king, he can do whatever he wants.” No, what makes him a king and not a tyrant is that he cares about his kingdom. There is a connection between his “kingship” and his “kingdom.” And to call God king is a beautiful thing.

God’s kingdom is a beautiful thing, where everything has its proper place, everything is ordered and right and beautiful. Nothing is dismissed or rejected, everything is in place.

***

Now, all of that is lost when we turn to the word “will.” Indeed, my mentor in the thought of Thomas Aquinas taught us to be careful about using the word “will.” Will precisely does not make the distinction between a benevolent king and a tyranical despot. In each case, the ruler’s will is done.

It is often wiser to talk about God’s plan rather than his will, to get a sense that there is some order and intelligence, not just brute force or willfullness. Note that Mary does not say “thy will,” but “thy word”: she sees the intelligence in God’s plan. Modern Catholic spiritual writers often reduce her “fiat” to a “yes” – but again, one can say yes to a tyranical will. Mary’s fiat goes deeper than that.

Nonetheless, Jesus teaches us to accept God’s will.

***

All these cautions about thinking of God as mere willfulness can help us understand why we do say “thy will be done.” We say “will” when we don’t know why. “Kingdom” is a hopeful word, where we see the beauty of God’s plan. “Will” is an abandoned word, where we have no idea why he’s doing what he does.

And that has a place in our prayer life too. We need to know that God is a king, whose will is always for the good and beautiful and orderly and helpful. But we also need to know that his plan is often beyond our ken. Sometimes all we can say is, “thy will be done.” I don’t know why you’re doing this, God, but I accept it.

***

In the traditional Western view of the sacrament of Confirmation (the Easterners have not developed this theology, and the West has been careful not to get too far ahead of them – but the middle ages did have a rich theology of Confirmation), this is the sacrament of battle. We are anointed to bear witness – but not a witness of rich words, a witness of suffering.

In the traditional Western practice of Confirmation, the bishop slapped you – just as a medieval Lord would wound his knight with his own sword, to say, you go out to suffer.

When we say, “Thy will be done,” it is as if we call on our Confirmation. We attest our willingness to do, and to accept, God’s will, come what may. We grit our teeth, realizing that fighting for the beautiful kingdom will sometimes mean just getting beat up. In Confirmation, we receive the grace to grit our teeth.

In what parts of your life does it feel like God’s will makes no sense?

eric.m.johnston

One Comment

  1. Eric,
    I was pondering the notion of Mary’s assent to the word of God at the annunciation. The fascinating part of the story including the paintings is internal reality of that yes. Keeping in mind that assent is rooted in knowledge the great question is what did she know in faith of what was being asked of her. Consent, blind obedience is proportioned to the persons capacity to understand. In Christology I read about the discussions of the knowledge of Jesus with the notion “he grew in wisdom and knowledge as a touchstone but what about Mary and the phrase from the finding of Jesus in the Temple: She pondered these things in her heart”. How much, too quantitative, how qualitative was Mary’s assent proportioned to her status as mother of the Christ, the anointed one necessary for true assent.
    The issue is the common one in medicine: when a patient gives consent what should he know in order for it to be a genuine consent or assent. No recipes wanted, no cookie-cutter one size fits all with a slick definition, nothing reaches down to the singular, this or that, but that is where the assent takes place not on any abstract, very general plane. We need the virtuous person to bridge the existential gap between thought and action even in the case of giving assent, reasoning is always beyond sense so granted our scientific knowledge is such, on what basis then do we assent, Perhaps one possibility slightly Kantian we assent if everyone given the set of circumstances they would have assented, but how does a commonality of this type have anything going for it if the individuals making it up are all of the same nature, adding them up solves no problem but merely obfuscates it.
    Mary must be the quintessential virtuous person who both “sees” and can think or reason (pondering in scriptural terms) and thus in her person her decision is uniquely hers because only she can complete it, no one else
    The great painting which shows Mary, wrong clothes, wrong age, wrong surroundings but the her figure modestly putting out her hands in a gesture of gentle consternation about the how of the angels message indelibly marks Mary as knowing who she is and what she is doing and that is all she needs to assent.
    John

Leave a Reply to John Catan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *