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

Meditations Based on the Lord's Prayer

The Kingdom Evelyn Underhill

Having recognized and worshiped the Name, we pray next for its triumph: Thy Kingdom come.  Here man’s most sacred birthright, his deep longing for perfection, and with it his bitter consciousness of imperfection, break out with power.  We want to bring the God whom we worship, his beauty, his sovereignty, his order, into the very texture of our life; and the fundamental human need for action into the radius of our prayer.  This is the natural sequel to the prayer of adoration.  We have had a glimpse of the mystery of the Holy, have worshiped before the veils of beauty and sacrifice; and that throws into vivid relief the poverty, the anarchy, the unreality in which we live – the resistance of the world, the creature, to God, and its awful need of God.

Thy Kingdom come!  We open our gates to the Perfect, and entreat its transfiguring presence; redeeming our poor contingencies, our disharmonies, making good our perpetual fallings short.  We face the awful contrast between the Actual and the Real, and acknowledge our need of deliverance from sin; especially that sin of the world, that rebellion of creation against the Holy, which has thrust us out of Heaven.  The Kingdom is the serenity of God already enfolding us, and seeking to penetrate and redeem the whole of this created order; “shattering the horror of perpetual night” by a ray of Heavenly brightness.  We pray for this transformation of life, this healing of its misery and violence, its confusion and unrest, through the coming of the Holy God whom we adore; carrying through to regions still unconquered the great, the primary petition for the hallowing of his Name.  That the Splendor over against us may enter, cleanse, and sanctify every level of our existence; give it a new quality, coherence, and meaning.

The prayer is not that we may come into the Kingdom, for this we cannot do in our own strength.  It is that the Kingdom, the Wholly Other, may come to us, and become operative within our order; one thing working in another, as leaven in our dough, as seed in our field.  We are not encouraged to hope that the social order will go on evolving from within, until at last altruism triumphs and greed is dethroned: nor indeed does history support this view.  So far is this amiable program from the desperate realities of our situation, so unlikely is it that human nature will ever do the work of grace, that now we entreat the Divine Power to enter history by his Spirit and by his saints; to redeem, cleanse, fertilize, and rule.  Nor is this tremendous desire, this direct appeal to the Transcendent, that of one or two ardent and illuminated souls: it is to be the constant prayer of the whole church, voicing the one need of the whole world.  We know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.  And not only so, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit. (Romans 8:22-23)

The world is not saved by evolution, but by incarnation.  The more deeply we enter into prayer the more certain we become of this.  Nothing can redeem the lower and bring it back to health, but a life-giving incursion from the higher; a manifestation of the already present Reality.  I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: and this perpetual advent – the response of the eternal Agape to Eros in his need – is the true coming into time of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Pentecostal energy and splendor is present to glorify every living thing: and sometimes our love reaches the level at which it sees this as a present fact, and the actual is transfigured by the real.

What we look for then is not Utopia, but something which is given from beyond: Emmanuel, God with us, the whole creation won from rebellion and consecrated to the creative purposes of Christ.  This means something far more drastic than the triumph of international justice and good social conditions.  It means the transfiguration of the natural order by the supernatural: by the Eternal Charity.  Though we achieve social justice, liberty, peace itself, though we give our bodies to be burned for these admirable causes, if we lack this we are nothing.  For the Kingdom is the Holy not the moral; the Beautiful not the correct; the Perfect not the adequate; Charity not law.

With our growth in the spiritual life, we gradually learn this lesson of the complete difference in kind between our kingdom, our aim and achievement even at its best, and the Kingdom and achievement of God: that even the most devoted efforts for the moral and spiritual improvement of the here and now stop short of the real need – that total redemption of a distorted world for which “the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth”; its reharmonizing with reality.  The rule of Charity, which is the same as the sovereignty of the Holy, can never be forced on a reluctant world; for this is not consistent with its nature.  God will not invade his lost province.  His Spirit conquers by penetration, entering by the open door of prayer and spreading to entincture the whole of life.  “Our God shall come and shall not keep silence”; but the coming will be very quiet.  Without observation, the Eternal slides into the successive by inconspicuous paths, and transforms it to its purpose; the humble birth in a crowded stable yard outside Jerusalem, the victory of love when a young prophet gave himself to the Father’s purpose on the Cross, when a young scholar capitulated to that same Cross on the road to Damascus, when a young poet kissed a leper outside the gates of Assisi.  And many times more when homely heroisms, quiet sacrifices, secret prayers have opened the door.  For the action of God is seldom showy; the true energies of the Kingdom are supersensuous – only a little filters through to the visible world.

Thus more and more we must expect our small action to be overruled and swallowed up in the vast Divine action; and be ready to offer it, whatever it may be, for the fulfillment of God’s purpose, however must this may differ from our purpose.  The Christian turns again and again from that bewildered contemplation of history in which God is so easily lost, to the prayer of filial trust in which he is always found; knowing here that those very things which seem to turn to man’s disadvantage, may yet work to the Divine advantage.  On the frontier between prayer and history stands the Cross, a perpetual reminder of the price by which the Kingdom is brought in.  Seen from the world’s side, it is foolishness; seen from the land of contemplation, it is the Wisdom of God.  We live in illusion till that wisdom has touched us; and this touch is the first coming of the Kingdom to the individual soul.

It is a great thing for any soul to say without reserve in respect of its own life, Thy Kingdom come! for this means not only the acknowledgment of our present alienation, our fundamental egoism and impurity, but the casting down of the will, the destruction of our small natural sovereignty; the risk and adventure which accompany an unconditional submission to God, a total acceptance of the rule of love.  None can guess beforehand with what anguish, what tearing of old hard tissues and habits, the Kingdom will force a path into the soul, and confront self-love in its last fortress with the penetrating demand of God.  Yet we cannot use the words, unless we are prepared to pay this price: nor is the prayer of adoration real, unless it leads on to this.  When we said, Hallowed be Thy Name! we acknowledged the priority of Holiness.  Now we offer ourselves for the purposes of Holiness: handing ourselves over to God that his purposes, great or small, declared or secret, natural or spiritual, may be fulfilled through us and in us, and all that is hostile to his Kingdom done away.

There will be two sides to this: passive and active.  The passive side means enduring, indeed welcoming, the inexorable pressure of God’s transforming power in our own lives; for the Kingdom comes upon Earth bit by bit, as first one soul and then another is subjugated by love and so redeemed.  It means enduring the burning glance of the Holy, where that glance falls on imperfection, hardness, sin.  The active side means a self-offering for the purposes of the Kingdom, here and now in this visible world of space and time; the whole drive of our life, all our natural endowments, set toward a furtherance of the purposes of God.  Those purposes will not be fulfilled till the twist has been taken out of experience, and everything on Earth conforms to the pattern in Heaven – that is to say, in the Mind of God: wide-spreading love transfiguring the whole texture of life.  Here we have a direct responsibility as regards our whole use of created things: money, time, position, the politics we support, the papers we read.  It is true that the most drastic social reform, the most complete dethronement of privilege, cannot of themselves bring the Kingdom in; for peace and joy in the Holy Spirit can only come to us by the free gift of the Transcendent.  But at least these can clear the ground, prepare the highway of God; and here each act of love, each sacrifice, each conquest of prejudice, each generous impulse carried through into action counts: and each unloving gesture, hard judgment, pessimistic thought or utterance opposes the coming of the Kingdom and falsifies the life of prayer.

The coming of the Kingdom is perpetual.  Again and again freshness, novelty, power from beyond the world, break in by unexpected paths, bringing unexpected change.  Those who cling to tradition and fear all novelty in God’s relation with his world deny the creative activity of the Holy Spirit, and forget that what is now tradition was once innovation: that the real Christian is always a revolutionary, belongs to a new race, and has been given a new name and a new song.  God is with the future.  The supernatural virtue of hope blesses and supports every experiment made for the glory of his Name and the good of souls: and even when violence and horror seem about to overwhelm us, discerns the secret movement of the Spirit inciting to sacrifice and preparing new triumphs for the Will.  In the church, too, this process of renovation from within, this fresh invasion of Reality, must constantly be repeated if she is to escape the ever-present danger of stagnation.  She is not a static institution, but the living Body of the living Christ – the nucleus of the Kingdom in this world.  Thus loyalty to her supernatural calling will mean flexibility to its pressures and demands, and also a constant adjustment to that changing world to which she brings the unchanging gifts.  But only insofar as her life is based on prayer and self-offering will she distinguish rightly between these implicits of her vocation and the suggestions of impatience of self-will.

Yet the coming of the Kingdom does not necessarily mean the triumph of this visible church; nor of that which is sometimes called the Christian social order.  It means something far more deep, subtle, and costly: the reign of God, the all-demanding and all-loving, in individual hearts, overruling all the “adverse powers” which dominate human life – the vigorous survivals from our animal past which are nourished by our egotism and support its implicit rebellion against God – fear and anger, greed and self-assertion, jealousy, impatience, and discontent.  It means the reordering, the quieting, the perfecting of our turbulent interior life, the conquest of our rampant individualism by God’s supernatural action; and that same supernatural action gradually making each human life what it is meant to be – a living part of the Body of Christ, a sacramental disclosure of the splendor of God.

This secret and unrepeatable relation of each soul with God in prayer is the true condition of the well-being of the church; for it is through these individual and derivative spirits that Holy and Absolute Spirit works in time.  If the individual Christian depends on the support of the Supernatural Society, no less does that Supernatural Society depend on the quality of the individual Christian; and this quality is conditioned by his prayer – that is, the faithfulness, humility, and self-oblivion with which he responds to the pressure of God and offers himself for the purposes of the Will.

To look with real desire for the coming of the Kingdom means crossing over to God’s side; dedicating our powers, whatever they may be, to the triumph of his purpose.  The Bible is full of a stern insistence on that action which is ever the corollary of true contemplation.  It is here that the praying spirit accepts its most sacred privilege: active and costly cooperation with God – first in respect of its own purification, and then in respect of his creative and redeeming action upon life.  Our attitude here must be wide open toward God, exhibiting quite simply our poverty and impurity, acknowledging our second-rateness, but still offering ourselves such as we are.  Thy Kingdom come!  Here am I, send me.  Not the nature lover’s admiration but the laborer’s hard work turns the cornfield into the harvest field.  Hard work, which soon loses the aura of romantic devotion and must be continued through drudgery and exhaustion to the end.

When we realize this, and volunteer for it, at once we have about us the tremendous energies of the saints; the great cooperators with the Holy, the delighted slaves of God at their infinitely varied tasks – yet all in one way or another proclaiming the imminent Kingdom, bringing the Eternal Charity into immediate contact with the creature’s imperfections and needs.  If we consider Christ’s own action, as he moves, a man among men, declaring the Kingdom of God, we see that he sets about this in the most practical way: not merely inviting men to think of the Transcendent, but bringing down into the texture of their lives the redeeming action of the Transcendent.  He is singularly uninterested in lofty ideas and large projects, but greatly interested in redemptive acts.  Jesus, says Saint Matthew, went about in all Galilee, preaching the good news of the Kingdom and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people.  He was acting as the link between the outpouring love and harmony of the Life of God, and the jangled and defective life of men.  Tell John the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. Human life is readjusted and made whole by the healing action of dynamic love, exercised by One whose life is identical with his prayer.  His injunctions to his agents follow the same lines.  They are to heal disharmony and misery wherever they find it, meeting with an eager and compassionate love the most repulsive aspects of life, touching the leper, ministering to the neurotic, seeking the degraded and the lost.

Christ announced the one and only purpose of his ministry to be the bringing in of the Kingdom of God; by the quiet action of a flawless love giving back to our lost tormented planet its place in the orchestra of Heaven.  Yet the way in which he spoke of this Kingdom, this victory of the Supernatural, was always allusive, suggestive, poetic – never precise.  The Mystery of the Kingdom is sacred and must be reverenced.  Again and again we are warned against any attempt to reduce it to a formula, to say, Lo here! Lo there! to be dogmatic.  Instead of definition we are given a series of vivid contrasting pictures of some of the things that it is like: oblique approaches to a single living Truth.  It’s inconspicuousness from our point of view and yet its tremendous latent energy – like seed which has in itself the whole life of the tree: like leaven working unseen the transformation of the dough.  Its overwhelming attraction for those who recognize it – the Pearl, the Treasure.  The saints selling all they have to buy that Pearl, abandoning everything for the field in which the Treasure is hidden: prudence obliterated by love.  In telling of the Kingdom, he begins with the homely facts of daily life, but ends upon the summit of romance.  The Pearl is like the Grail: something always here, but never actualized save in the experience of certain happy and single-minded souls.  Useless to hunt for it.  We light upon it suddenly, in its matchless and reticent beauty: then, all hinges upon whether we will sell everything and pay the price.

Again, the Kingdom is present already, mingling disguised with the untransformed and common life; and sometimes the form in which it meets us has no beauty that we should desire it.  Then it must be recognized not by its looks but by its fruits.  It enters the world that we know, as it were by the action of One who sows broadcast something which is not of the world we know – the good seed of Holiness, the supernatural life.  Sows it, not in a nicely prepared corner, but in the open field, exposed to all weathers and all risks.  There God’s wheat and the devil’s darnel, which looks at first glance just like wheat, grow together.  Real charity and sham charity; the real Christian and the self-occupied devotee.  The hurried enthusiast, the keen reformer, eager to apply absolute standards, wants to pull up the darnel and leave the wheat.  But the wise tolerance of God leaves both growing together, content that the genuine crop should be known by its yield.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: