Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Human Flourishing: Theology and the Life of Grace

Human Flourishing: Theology and the Life of Grace
Blackfriars, Oxford - March 2010

‘Man infinitely surpasses man’, says Blaise Pascal (Pensées, 434), a thought quoted by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical letter Populorum Progressio (§42), one of the great church documents on human flourishing. Philosophy has always included a sense of this, intimations of a transcendence seen at least in those human activities of thought and choice that make philosophy possible in the first place. Plato’s eros, for example, seems to be a force or desire that carries the human being ever onward in a search for the good, for truth and beauty.  A Christianised version of it is well known from Augustine  - ‘our hearts are restless’ – so far, so much agreement – ‘until they rest in you’, Augustine says, identifying the object of the heart’s quest with God and prefacing his statement with the reason why this must be the terminus: ‘you have made us for yourself’. As Sister Maria Boulding’s wonderful translation of the Confessions puts it, ‘you arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you’.
Aristotle too sees something ‘divine’ in the knowledge of truth, saying, in Nicomachean Ethics X.7, that the highest exercise of the highest faculty – the highest flourishing available to us has something god-like about it:
But if happiness (eudaimonia) consists in activity in accordance with virtue (arete), it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. Whether then this be the intellect (nous), or whatever else it be that is thought to rule and lead us by nature, and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine, either as being itself also actually divine (theion) or as being relatively the divinest part of us (theiotaton), it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will constitute perfect happiness; and it has been stated already that this activity is the activity of contemplation (theoretike) [1177a12-19; see also 1177b31-34]
Except that it has not been stated already, at least not in the Nicomachean Ethics and this text causes perplexity to interpreters of Aristotle for other reasons also; I mean if they are keen to distance Aristotle from anything that seems too platonic and to see his real understanding of human flourishing in the more horizontal, perhaps even secular, accounts of the magnanimous man living serenely and confidently in the moderate enjoyment of all the good things life offers.
But the idea that human flourishing is found in some kind of transcending of limitation continues to be a concern in many philosophers. This is the argument of Fergus Kerr in his Stanton Lectures in the Philosophy of Religion, given in 1994-95 and published as Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity (1997). His aim in those lectures was to focus on the religion in some recent philosophy, to express dismay at how scant and how poor is some educated peoples’ knowledge of Christian theology, while seeking to show how theological preconceptions are nevertheless working in much modern philosophy. His substantive question – and a version of it can be ours also at this point in the day – is whether there are ways of acknowledging the limitations of human existence without regarding these limitations as barriers on the one hand, and without eliminating our desire to transcend our finitude on the other.  I say ‘a version of it’ because I don’t suppose it is the case that many people explicitly describe their desire in this way: ‘I want to transcend my finititude’. It is more likely that people say ‘I want to be as happy as I can be’, or ‘I want to live as fruitfully and as joyfully as possible’, or ‘I want to fulfil the potential of my life’, or ‘I want to live in accordance with what is true about me and my life’.
Is Pascal’s thought a silly one, perhaps even a bad one that ought not to be entertained? Would Augustine’s restless heart not have settled down if he had simply been able to love his woman and his child, the loves identified by Umberto Eco in Foucault’s Pendulum as the loves in which a man’s flourishing consists?

In the opening article of his Summa theologiae, Aquinas speaks of human flourishing, salus humana – human health, wellbeing, salvation, or, we can say, flourishing. This health or flourishing requires yet one more discipline or teaching, he says, sacra doctrina. This is the case because the human being is oriented to God as to his goal or end, an orientation that is beyond the comprehension of the human mind. A human being cannot direct his intentions and actions to this end unless he has come to know it. So it is necessary, for human health or flourishing, that these matters be made known through divine revelation. Aquinas knows there is a part of philosophy called ‘theology’ and that philosophers have presented versions of transcending humanity, but he is saying that some further knowledge is needed because some new finality for human aspiration has been revealed.
What can be known about God otherwise than through this sacra doctrina – by human reason alone – would only be understood by very few people, over a long time, and with many distortions. But – he says it for the third time in a short passage – the entire health or flourishing of humankind (tota hominis salus) depends on knowledge of this truth which (the knowledge or the truth?) is in God. So that this health or flourishing might therefore be quickly and certainly accessible to people, it is necessary that they be instructed about divine things through a divine revelation.
This introduces us to how Aquinas understands the science or discipline of sacra doctrina, which from what we know about him we can translate as ‘sacred teaching’ or as ‘Christian doctrine’. He goes on in that first question of the Summa theologiae to propose that this doctrine or teaching – let’s call it ‘theology’ for short – is a subalternated science, of which there are many examples among the sciences, an area of research and knowledge which accepts some or all of its fundamental principles from a superior science and gets on with its business untroubled by the fact that it cannot itself establish those principles through itself. The superior science in this case is God’s knowledge of himself and of all things. This is the science that establishes theology’s first principles, a science that becomes accessible to us through revelation and faith, theology then being the systematic investigation of what has become known through revelation and faith. The point here, from our point of view, is that this is not just interesting information about things that have nothing crucial to do with us: this is the truth about the full flourishing of the human being, tota hominis salus (ST I 1,1 in c).
Another word for the experience in which this flourishing is found is beatitudo, a theme that links all parts of this theological system: God’s happiness is complete (ST I 26), humans are drawn towards it as their end (ST I.II 1-5), and their entering into possession of it is made possible by the incarnation of the Word who showed us in himself the way of truth by which we may arrive at the full flourishing of eternal life (ST III prologue). In this Aquinas structures his theology according to one of the first principles presented to us by revelation: that the Son of God propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis, for us, human beings, and for our flourishing. He came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
So far what have I done? Well I have reminded us that philosophy has often concerned itself with a human desire to get beyond what are experienced as negotiable limits to that desire. And I have reminded us that theology thinks of itself as carrying us further, though in the same direction. Faith is not ‘reason’s opposite’ as a character in one of Brian Moore’s novels puts it: faith extends reason’s reach and gives it more things to think about.
In the second part I want to speak about a version of transcending humanity we find in Plotinus, known to Aquinas and considered by him, but not incorporated into Aquinas general systematic account of human flourishing. I do it as another way of circling round the same question. At this point, that question has become that of trying to demonstrate that human flourishing is, in the end, not achieved but received.

In that part of his inaugural lecture that is entitled ‘on the commendation and the division of the scriptures’, Aquinas appeals to a section of Plotinus’ Enneads (I 2) in support of the view that what Aquinas calls precepts of wisdom are given to us in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. This is what Aquinas says (he is trying to present a plausible rationale for all the books of the Bible):
… these (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song) can be distinguished according to the three grades of virtue distinguished by Plotinus, since precepts of wisdom ought to be about nothing else than acts of virtues. In the first level, are what he (Plotinus) calls political virtues by which a person makes moderate use of the things of this world and is appropriately involved in social affairs. The Book of Proverbs is about these virtues. In the second level, are the ‘virtues of the one being purified’ by which a person withdraws himself from the things of the world out of contempt for them. The Book of Ecclesiastes is about these virtues: Jerome says Ecclesiastes is geared towards such contempt. In the third level, are the ‘virtues of the one who is purified’ by which a person, effectively free of temporal concerns, delights in the contemplation of wisdom. The Song of Songs is about this (De commendatione et partitione sacrae scripturae [Marietti, Opuscula Theologica I, §1207).
There are no precepts of wisdom for Plotinus’ fourth level. This is the level of ‘exemplar virtues’, or virtues as they exist in God: ‘precepts are not given about such virtues’, Aquinas says, ‘but are rather derived from them’.
Enneads I 2 is a typical weaving together by Plotinus of ideas from Plato (the purpose of life is to become godlike) and from Aristotle (distinguishing moral and intellectual virtues, and being clear that moral virtues are not found in God). It is known to Aquinas through the writings of Macrobius who summarised Plotinus’ teaching about these four levels of virtue: the civic or political virtues (which are the cardinal virtues as normally understood), exemplar virtues (which are the same qualities at the divine level with appropriate Aristotelian-informed qualifications), virtues in the process of purification, and virtues in the achieved state of purification (with the energy of a Platonic ascent charging an Aristotelian and even Ciceronian valuing of the active life).
After his appeal to it in his inaugural lecture, Aquinas speaks of it again in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, once where he discusses whether the cardinal virtues remain in heaven (In III Sent 33, 1, 4 ad 2) and again where he discusses the difference between virtues and gifts (In III Sent 34, 1, 1 ad 6). In this latter text it is Nicomachean Ethics VII.1 [1145a24] to which he appeals for the point that divine goodness is something more exalted than virtue.
The plotinian distinction of levels of virtue is again introduced in Quaestiones disputatae de Veritate 26,8, this time in a discussion of what passions were in Christ. In his response Aquinas talks about the difference between Stoic and Peripatetic understandings of passion. The Stoics were thinking of Plotinus’ third level, Thomas says, virtues as they are in the purified soul where passion is not just managed but overcome. The Aristotelians were thinking of the reasonable management of passions, not their elimination. So the famous difference between the two schools, as described by Augustine, is a matter of terminology, Thomas says, rather than a real difference in understanding. For the purpose of his present argument it is just two levels of Plotinus’ four that are relevant, the civic or political virtues which he now identifies with the active life, and the virtues of the purified soul which he identifies with the contemplative life.

Aquinas’s most extensive use of Plotinus’ levels of virtue is in Summa theologiae I.II 61,5. It comes between the four articles in which he discusses the cardinal virtues (61, 1-4) and the four articles in which he discusses the theological virtues (62, 1-4). It might seem then to be a linking article and the ways in which it is and is not a linking article serve to focus something crucial about my topic: human flourishing and the life of grace. The most striking thing here is that Aquinas considers, between the cardinal and theological virtues, a philosophical version of transcending humanity, one that weaves together beautifully the teaching of Platonists, Aristotelians and Stoics, one that is easily adapted to contrasting the active and contemplative lives, and one that is easily incorporated into a spiritual journey or quest. Pierre Hadot says that in Neoplatonism ‘the idea of spiritual progress plays a much more explicit role than in Plato’s writings’ and that ‘the stages of spiritual progress corresponded to different degrees of virtue’ (Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, p.99).
In spite of all this, Plotinus’ does not become Aquinas’ preferred way of speaking about the fulfilment brought by grace, the possibility for human flourishing opened up by grace. Instead he speaks of what he calls ‘theological virtue’, of which there are, he says, three, ‘faith, hope and charity’. These are what Saint Paul had called ‘the higher gifts’ (1 Corinthians 12:31).
In Summa theologiae I.II 61,5 Aquinas begins his consideration of Plotinus’ four levels by quoting Augustine who says that the human soul must aspire to something if virtue is to be born in it. We aspire to God, Augustine says, and so (Aquinas adds) it is in God that the exemplar of human virtue pre-exists. So we can speak of God as prudent, temperate, courageous and just: Thomas says this even though Aristotle says it is ridiculous to use these terms of God (arg 1 and ad 1). To call them political virtues is in line with Thomas’s normal understanding of them, as rightly ordering human affairs.
What does he say then about Plotinus’ other two levels of virtue? Well, even Aristotle agrees that human beings should draw themselves towards divine things as far as they are able. Nicomachean Ethics X.7 is once again the place Thomas has in mind, this time the passage in which Aristotle says that complete human happiness requires a life higher than the human level: ‘not in virtue of his humanity will a man achieve it, but in virtue of something within him that is divine … we ought as far as possible to achieve immortality’ [1177b26]. Thus Aristotle, and the scriptures often commend the same thing to us, Thomas says, for example, ‘you must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). So intermediate virtues are required between the political virtues, which are simply human, and the exemplar virtues, which are divine.
Such virtues, Thomas continues, are distinguished according to movement and rest, the one concerned with the journey into a likeness to God and the other concerned with the state of having attained to likeness to God. These are the levels of purifying and purified virtues, and he describes how the characteristics of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice are found at each of these two levels. The virtues of purified souls are found only in the blessed, and in certain very perfect people in this life (aliquorum in hac vita perfectissimorum).
This final article of Summa theologiae I.II 61 throws into sharper relief the question posed then in the first article of I.II 62: what then are theological virtues when we have, as the second objection notes, already spoken about an exemplar or divine level of virtue, the cardinal virtues as they pre-exist in God? In fact all the objections here express this view: don’t we know already that man infinitely surpasses man and naturally aspires to immortality?
Thomas’s response opens a can of theological worms. Virtue perfects the human being, he says, enabling him to act in ways that lead to his flourishing. There is, however, a twofold flourishing or happiness for human beings. One is proportionate to human nature and is attainable through principles that are natural. The other is a flourishing that exceeds nature and is attainable only through divine power, only if we have come to participate in divinity. The Second Letter of Peter says that through Christ we are made ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). This requires the addition, Thomas says, of principles or powers by which a person is oriented to this supernatural flourishing (beatitudo supernaturalis). These principles or powers are called theological virtues for three reasons: they have God as their object rightly ordering us to God, they are in us simply from God, and they are available to us only through divine revelation in sacred scripture.
So he does not simply say ‘yes, there are theological virtues and Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus knew it, even though all three philosophers give us versions of humanity transcending to the divine. Human nature itself is transformed, Thomas says, so that these supernatural virtues are the ‘natural’ activities of that transformed nature. Plotinus’ divine or exemplar virtues are predicated of God whereas faith, hope and charity are virtues placed in us by God and towards God.
We thus glimpse grace. There is much more that could be said and much more that should be said: about the theological virtues and the gifts of the Spirit, about the new law and the sacraments, about sanctifying grace, charismatic gifts and particular vocations. The full human flourishing revealed in Christ does not simply meet our aspirations towards it. The text of Isaiah to which Thomas had access allows him to quote the prophet saying ‘without you, no eye can see what you have prepared for those who love you’ (Summa theologiae I 1,1 in c [cf Isaiah 64:4 and 1 Corinthians 2:9). Those aspirations also need to be corrected and redeemed, not simply in order to extend the reach of intellect and will through faith and hope, but also, and above all, through charity. Paul’s speech to the philosophers of Athens recorded in Acts 17 is the first and paradigmatic instance of sacra doctrina and philosophy being introduced to each other. And it went well, up to a point, and then it broke down. At what point did it break down? It broke down when Paul began to speak of the ultimate reality having an interest in us that was more than the desire to make sport with us. It broke down when Paul said that this ultimate reality had intervened in human history in one man. And it broke down when Paul said that that intervention in one man has illuminated the need and poverty of our situation and shown it to be more conflicted, more pitiable, than we can realise by ourselves.  It broke down, finally, because Paul called them to conversion: imagine, asking philosophers to consider changing their minds!
Faith, hope and charity are not so much then a new level of virtues just like the ones we already know about as they are a new light and a new life which touches all the earlier levels. In fact this perspective of theological virtue shows itself most clearly in the place nearest to us, as our faith and hope in God enable us to relate to the neighbour, the needy neighbour, as God relates to us. The needy neighbour’s flourishing requires that we give him food, drink and clothing, his lack of freedom or lack of health requires that we visit and take care of him, his strangeness requires that we receive him and his otherness requires that we be reconciled with each other.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012


The most startling moment in Mel Gibson’s film about the passion. was when the soldier pierced the side of Christ and, as we are told in St John’s gospel, ‘immediately there came out blood and water’ (19.34). I had always imagined it as a trickle but in the film it was a shower, bursting out to wash the faces of those standing at the foot of the cross. It is the saving fountain spoken of in the prophecy of Zechariah (13.1), what the liturgy refers to as ‘the fountain of sacramental life in the Church’ (Preface of the Sacred Heart), presented in the film in the tradition of Baroque art.
The early Dominicans were not afraid of the physical aspects of the passion of Christ. When they prayed their preferred icon was the crucifix. We see this, for example, in the 14th century illustrations of the ways of prayer of St Dominic. Many of the frescoes of Fra Angelico show the blood of Christ flowing from his side in great abundance and pouring down the trunk of the cross to wash and irrigate the earth.

St Catherine of Siena directed her prayer to Christ crucified and had much to say about the power of his blood. The ways in which we dispose ourselves physically in relation to the crucifix express different moments or aspects in our relationship with Christ, she says. We may kneel to kiss his feet in the attitude of the creature and sinner, fearful and still anxious, bowing before her Creator and Lord. Or we may stand to kiss his side. This is the position of one growing into the ‘perfect love which casts out fear’ (1 John 4.18) but still looking to the gifts Christ can give and not yet simply at the giver of those gifts, Christ himself. Kissing the lips of Christ crucified expresses the love of friendship, Catherine says, that we are no longer servants but friends (John 15.15). It represents maturity in the Christian life, when we come to love God no longer out of fear and no longer for what he can do for us, but simply for God himself.

Catherine teaches that if we wish to learn how to make this journey then the school we must attend is prayer. ‘We learn every virtue in constant and faithful humble prayer’, she says. Thomas Aquinas said that he had learned more from gazing at the crucifix than from all the books he had read. In one of his conferences on the Creed he says that ‘the passion of Christ is sufficient in itself to instruct us completely in our whole life’.

One of the traditional practices of Lent is to meditate on the passion and death of Jesus by following the way of the Cross. It is a simple and time-honoured technique, a bit like the Rosary, as we move from station to station meditating on the moments of the journey from his arrest to his burial.

Any wisdom that is worth anything will have something to say about suffering and for us there can be no reflection on suffering, just as there can be no reflection on evil, that by-passes the suffering and death of Jesus. I am sure we will all want to go further and say that there can be no useful reflection on suffering or evil that does not place the suffering and death of Jesus at its centre.

This can be a difficult one to get right. The Christian way at its best is not interested in pain and suffering in a way that is perverted, queer or odd. And yet the Christian way accepts that growth in love can only be by way of the Cross. Very often though, perhaps always, our personal experience of suffering does not seem to fit neatly into the story we preach about it. What I mean is that the cross never comes in exactly the way we anticipate. If it did, it would not be the cross. So we really suffer deeply because we do not see the point of suffering in this way or in that, or because we do not see the point of it going on so long, because it seems wasteful and meaningless, and so on. It never comes in the way we would have chosen for ourselves and often attacks those aspects and qualities in ourselves that seem most valuable.

Jesus suffered for us and left us an example that we should follow the way he took. It is a way that is not in the first place about suffering. In the first place it is about love, but love necessarily entails suffering. To love is to be tender and vulnerable. To love is to be open to the presence of another, giving priority to their concerns. To love is to share the burdens and difficulties of another. And so to love means to leave oneself open to the possibility, the likelihood, we must say to the inevitability of suffering.

If ‘love’ is the first word that discloses the meaning of Jesus’ sufferings then ‘sin’ is the second. The career of Jesus follows the way of the cross not just because it is love but because it is love in a sinful world. It is universal human experience that the wise and just person excites envy, and perhaps hatred and violence in this sinful world. The third chapter of the Book of Wisdom paints a prophetic picture of envy and rejection:

Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls (2:12-22).

We believe that Jesus, out of love and obedience, exposed himself to all this and gave his flesh for the life of this sinful world. Any share in the mystery of his sacrificial love is a strange joy for those who believe in Him. Far from setting us one step back from human experience, the following of Christ in his suffering, our attendance at the school of his suffering and death, brings us straight to the heart of human experience, straight to the heart of God.

Monday, 16 July 2012


What if we were to pray as follows:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Deliver us from evil
Lead us not into temptation
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
And give us this day our daily bread.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy kingdom come,
And hallowed be thy name.

It is of course the Lord’s Prayer recited upside down. Although we continue to recite the prayer in the order in which Jesus taught it, perhaps if we are to be honest the real ordering of our desires and so the order in which we actually pray to God is as I have just presented it: the Lord’s Prayer but upside down.

The thought came to me over the weekend when I was looking through some things written by Vincent McNabb about prayer. He speaks about the centrality of the Lord’s Prayer, its frequent use in the Divine Office, and the fact that it encapsulates not only every request that we might want to make to God but also the order in which those requests should be made. St Thomas, in a lovely phrase that I’m sure I’ve quoted for you before, says that prayer is desiderii interpres, the interpreter of desire. The human heart desires and prayer, oratio, is the articulation of its desires. The words of prayer on our lips give form to the desires in our hearts, Thomas says.

What McNabb adds to this is that in reciting the Lord’s Prayer we learn not only what we ought to pray for but also the order in which we ought to pray for it. So it is not just an interpreter of our desire but also a teacher of our desire, a school in which we learn the right ordering of human desires. If it is, as we call it, the Lord’s Prayer, then perhaps it is only Our Lord who can sincerely say it in the order in which nevertheless we continue to say it. Jesus is the one whose heart is, without qualification and without reserve, placed at the disposal of the Father’s will. He is the one whose life is simply and completely about giving glory to God’s name. He is the one whose life is simply identified with the coming of God’s kingdom.

If we look at our own poor efforts at prayer we will very quickly see, I think, that we do say the Lord’s Prayer but more or less upside down. All the desires are there but their order still requires attention and it is why we must pray constantly as St Paul tells us. Let us have a look and see if what I’m saying is not true.

Deliver us from evil. This will be our first petition in the upside down Lord’s Prayer. It is true, is it not, that we turn to prayer and often return to prayer when we hit trouble. The presence of evil is the strongest incentive in getting people to pray. Famous cartoons show lines of City bankers queuing up to pray where there is talk of war or a stock market crash. There were no atheists in the trenches, people said at the time of the First World War, and it is difficult to imagine somebody who would not pray in some way in an aeroplane whose engines have begun to sound peculiar. When our backs are to the wall, whether through illness, failure, sin, loneliness, or some other evil that has come upon us, we will pray.

Lead us not into temptation. We may like a challenge but there will always be limits to what we can bear. The evil now is not on top of us but something threatening but, in such circumstances, we will want God’s help. For the time ahead, for the homily to be given, for the class we have to give, for the meeting that is coming up. There may be moral or physical dangers in some of the things we are called to do and it is natural to ask God’s help with them. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a legitimate desire that we might do things well with God’s help and not be put, too much, to the test.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Was it one of the Monty Python films that has God appearing and lamenting the fact that people are always moaning to him about their sins? ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m fed up with people telling me they’re sorry. Why can’t someone say they’re not sorry?’ It may not be exactly in those words, and it is a bit irreverent, but it might help us to see something. Another desire that sends us to our knees is the desire for forgiveness when we have sinned but it may be that we are often thinking more about ourselves than we are about God even in asking for forgiveness. And it may be that we forget that this petition, like the great commandment, is in two parts. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Just as our relationship of love with God cannot be understood without reference to our love of neighbour (and of enemies) likewise our participation in the forgiveness of God cannot be separated from our willingness to forgive others – at least to be aware of our need to be reconciled with our brother first before presenting our gift at the altar.

And give us this day our daily bread. There is nothing wrong with this one either. Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you. There is a venerable tradition from Tugwell and McCabe back through Victor White and Vincent McNabb that not only does not despise the prayer of petition but actually gives it an honoured place. We are to develop the kind of relationship with God in which we will feel comfortable, as a child with its parents, telling God what we need and asking him to grant it to us. We pray for the needs of the world and of the Church, for the protection of travellers, the comfort of mourners, food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, peace for the oppressed, the healing of the sick, the comfort of the dying, to pass an exam, to see a person again. These are all legitimate desires and appropriately brought to God in prayer.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Now this marks a change in our desire for it is the first one in which we begin to think of what God might want. The four petitions we have made up to now are all about ourselves and about our needs. The interest in God that we show in them is a genuine interest in God but it does not go beyond an interest in what God can do for us: delivering us from evil, protecting us from temptation, forgiving us our sins, giving us what we need. Here, for the first time in this upside down Lord’s Prayer, we show a real interest in the desire of the other party to this relationship of prayer. Perhaps God wants something. Perhaps God has a will about things, on earth as in heaven. Well we believe He does, don’t we, and so it ought to be part of our desire not only to want the things we want God to give us, but also to want the things that God wants to give us.

Tby kingdom come strengthens this desire. Something new is opening up, for we are no longer simply saying, ‘Hey God, isn’t this cool? I’ve found a place for you in my world. I see reasons (when many do not) for including you in my way of living’. Now we are beginning to realise that it is not so much a question of us finding a place for God in our world as of God having found a place for us in His kingdom. This looks like a relationship that is becoming mature and growing into something stronger than before, where the desire of the one who is praying is becoming aligned with the desire of the one to whom he is praying. I am beginning to want what God wants. But we are not to think that this transition can be made easily. The place where it is most dramatically presented is in Gethsemane where Jesus utters his own prayer upside down: ‘Father, remove this cup from me (deliver me from evil, lead me not into temptation), yet not what I will but what thou wilt (thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, thy kingdom come)’.

And hallowed be thy name. In our upside down Lord’s Prayer this is the final petition. This is the climax of our desire, not something for ourselves but something for the Other who through prayer we come to know and love. May His name be held holy. The high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 may be taken as a commentary on this petition. ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee. I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do. I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world’ – and so on. A few chapters earlier, in what seems like John’s transfiguration scene, Jesus uses a phrase very close to what Matthew and Luke give us in the Our Father: ‘Jesus said, ‘Father, glorify thy name’. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it and I will glorify it again’‘ (John 12).

What if that were to become the fundamental desire of our lives, the desire that controls all the others, that in everything and no matter what God’s name be glorified? Perhaps the whole point of our perseverance in prayer is that we might, some day, be able to say the Lord’s Prayer right way up, our desire for the glory of God’s name having become in fact our fundamental desire. In the meantime it is a salutary exercise, more rewarding than any yoga position, to say the Lord’s Prayer upside down and I recommend that you all have a go at it. There is much to be learned about our desires and what we can honestly say we want from God. Jesus, the only Son from the Father, can say this prayer right way up and so he taught it to his disciples. But this reflection may help us to realise that the disciples were asking for more than a formula of words when, having seen him at it, they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray.

Saturday, 14 July 2012


Monotheletism is the heresy that says there is just one will in Christ, the divine will. Why did people come to this view and what’s the problem with it? If there is in Christ just one Person then it seems reasonable to say that there is in Him just one will. This is how you know you are up against a person: you meet a will. What sense would it make to think of a person with two wills?

Wills clash, almost inevitably it seems. Again this is how you know there are two wills around, there is conflict, and this we do not find in Christ.

You will think immediately of Gethsemane: this, especially as recounted by Mark, supports the orthodox doctrine of two wills while excluding the doctrine of one will. There seems to be a clear conflict between what Jesus wants and what God wants. It is a dramatic episode, always repaying reflection, particularly in regard to what love means as a ‘union of wills’. The conflict is between natures rather than persons and the wills of Christ are attached to the natures.

My reason for speaking of these Christological heresies is to look at our way of living religious life, to see if the heresy manifests itself in how we are relating the divine and human aspects of our life. Religious obedience might seem to be about will, ‘the greatest sacrifice is that of one’s own will’: this is how some theologies and spiritualities speak. St Thomas Aquinas sees no need for any vow other than obedience because this is the most radical one of all, including all others. It is, after all, the obedience of Christ, an obedience learnt through suffering, that saves the world. The vowed religious follows Christ above all in obedience.

None of us will have any difficulty, I imagine, in the thought of being obedient to God or to Christ, even where such obedience involves suffering. Being obedient to other human beings: there’s the rub! It might seem then that obedience becomes, as Herbert McCabe puts it, ‘a necessary evil’, a mechanism for unlocking conflict: let yet another will intervene that we will all agree to go along with …

In a fairly well known lecture he gave on religious obedience, however, Herbert say it is about intellect rather than will, about understanding rather than power. The vow of obedience is about living in community (and so it is ultimately about understanding God). Superiors always stand for the community, he says, since none of them would be there except the community has asked them. Superiors are first under obedience, we can say, to the community that asks them to take on the task. An Irish Dominican, John Heuston, writing about religious obedience says it allows us to say to superiors ‘you would have no power over me if it had not been given you from below’.

Obedience is more about understanding than about will and is perfect when all have come to share one mind. The good of the community – which in the case of Dominicans is the mission of preaching the gospel – is sought together through an educational process in which the superior plays a central role. That’s still Herbert. And so is this: it is not so much communities that are made up of individuals as it is individuals that are made up of communities. Communities are ‘forms of love’, networks in which we find rather than lose ourselves.
This is not just liberal neo-Marxism. Thomas Aquinas says, on the virtue of obedience, that friendship makes us want and not want the same things (amicitia facit idem velle et nolle) and Augustine speaks of the gravity that accompanies love and draws it towards the good (amor meus pondus meum): I go after my love and am obedient to it, and I do not experience it as offensive to my will that it be overcome by the good.

We are people of our time and have become accustomed to speaking (and therefore thinking) as the world speaks (and thinks). So the language of ‘informed choice’, ‘autonomy’, and ‘rights over against one another’ finds its way also to us and inevitably colours our thinking about obedience and authority, freedom and power. Such things conspire with what Vincent McNabb calls ‘psychological reasons’ to make obedience difficult, pushing us back towards thinking that wills must clash and that only one will must prevail.
This is then a monotheletistic view of religious life and of Christian life instead of the alternative: a shared vision, a common task, a fraternal life, ultimately a union of wills in love.