THE LORD’S PRAYER: Prevenience, by Evelyn Underhill

Meditations Based on the Lord's Prayer

Prevenience Evelyn Underhill

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  May that strange directive power of which from time-to-time we are conscious as the controlling factor of life have pity on our weakness and lead us out of confusion into peace.

This abject confession of helplessness seems at first sight to be meant for the untried and bewildered neophyte, in whom the gifts of the Spirit have not yet had time to grow.  Actually, it is the culmination of the prayer which was given to the Church of God in the persons of her Apostles; those through whom the sanctification of human history was to be set going, the handful of men to whom we owe our Christian inheritance.  It is this picked band, these channels of the Spirit, already surrendered to the Creative Will, who, as the very crown of filial worship, are taught to acknowledge their own fragility, their childlike status; their utter dependence on the ceaseless guiding and protecting power of God.  “My times are in thy hand.  Hold thou up my going in thy path that my footsteps slip not.”  All my small movements, tests, struggles, and apparent choices take place within the grasp of Creative Love.  “Thou shalt answer for me, O Lord my God.”

Thus the movement of prayer brings man to a double sense of the overruling power and wisdom of God, directing at every point in small things as in great the movement of his creature, and of that creature’s ignorance and weakness.  If a realistic and full acknowledgment of sinfulness – the awful gap between the divine and the human – comes late in the life of prayer, later still comes this complete downfall of self-sufficiency and acceptance of our true situation.  Though the soul may not seek God for any utilitarian reason, yet now at the apex of her prayer, because of her entire dependence on the unseen, she can ask with the assurance of a child for personal guidance and rescue; for the intimate concern of the Transcendent with her small and struggling life.  Her faith, hope, and love converge to produce this state of abandoned trust.

The action of that overruling love fails not.  It is we that resist, ignore, are lost and bewildered because we do not abandon ourselves to the steady guiding power; become lost in multiplicity, and forget the universals which condition our real life.  Regret for the past, its errors and evil, and anxiety and bewilderment as regards the future, keep us enchained by succession, and our contact with the Abiding is lost.  Nevertheless, as the life of prayer deepens it brings a gradual realization of the twofold character of all our experience; each event truly a part of this unceasing storm of succession, and yet each event directly linked with the quiet action of God.  Through all vicissitudes of trail, sin, and conflict, the ground of the soul is rooted in his life; that country from which we are exiled, yet which is our home.  For we do not in our essence belong to the world of confusion, the meaningless torrent of circumstance which so easily obsesses us.  We are “sons of light and sons of the day,” part of a charismatic order, members of Christ and inheritors of Heaven.  But we fall short of our calling, share the sin and confusion of the troubled world; which “groaneth and travaileth even until now,” because of its alienation from God.

We accept that double situation with all that it involves for us.  We do not ask for some impossible spirituality, some miraculous deliverance from this our creaturely state.  We are committed to the life of the senses with all its risks and deceits; and we know well our own weakness, our inclination to sin.  Yet we know too that in this confusion the rescuing power of the Holy is already active, and that if we are supple to his pressure we shall be kept from the temptations and delivered from the evil of a world in which grace and nature struggle together; in which the spirit of man, in spite of confusions and bewilderments, is never left alone.

The journey of the soul through life is strangely like the progress of the child Alice through Looking-Glass Land.  For the plot has both an active, visible, and obvious side, and a quiet, deeply hidden mysterious side.  Alice, that small representative of the spirit of man, finds herself wandering through a strange, unstable world of circumstance, and undergoing many bewildering experiences which seem, as the experiences of our life often do, chaotic and unmeaning.  She travels through a country which is divided like a chessboard into light and dark patches.  She has no map and little sense of direction; and she passes for no apparent reason, and in no apparent sequence, from square to square.  The odd people whom she meets, and the odd things which happen, seem quite unconnected with the game.  Everything is in a muddle; most disconcerting to those who expect to find the clue to life’s meaning in the tangle of daily events.

But if we turn back to the first page of this bewildering story, we find there what Alice wanted but could never discover: a plan of the chessboard as the Player sees it, with each piece in its right place in relation to the whole.  Then we see that everything which happened to Alice, however unmeaning, disconcerting, or apparently hostile to her interests, was a real move in a real game.  All those changes and chances, these pains and frustrations, were queer but deliberate devices for getting the child, who began as a pawn, to the eighth square, where she must end as a Queen.  The help and direction she received from the creatures that she encountered, the imperceptible pressure of events never varied in intention.  However great the obstacles, the apparent confusions and absurdities, the goal was always the eighth square.  The best advice was often that which seemed most foolish; as when the Rose told Alice to walk away from the Red Queen if she wanted to meet her.  The really important moves were not recognized till long after they were made.  It is true that Alice went through one of the earlier squares by train; but she was actually passing through another, almost at the end of her journey, when she thought herself hopelessly lost in the dark forest with nothing to help her but the muddled statements of the White Knight.  Once she was called right off the path to befriend the silly and untidy old White Queen.  Yet it was in running after the Queen’s lost shawl, and jumping the little brook over which it had floated, that Alice made her next move, and reached the fifth square.  Here we easily recognize our own experience; and so too in that puzzling phase when life sometimes seemed to Alice to be a shop full of possessions, and sometimes to be a river on which she had to row.  When it seemed to be a shop, the egg moved away directly she wanted to buy it; and when she looked hard at anything, it ceased to be real.  When it seemed to be a river, the flowering rush that she wanted was always just out of reach, and those she managed to pick soon faded and died.  Yet in spite of her bewilderment the child caught in the web of circumstance was never really lost; each baffling experience contributed something to the whole.  The hand of the Player was hovering over the pawn.

This seems a childish allegory to use as the veil of so great a mystery; the ultimate mystery of faith.  But its inner meaning gives new significance to the jumble of incidents, the alternation of drift and bustle, the competing claims, the griefs and joys, the errors and recoveries, frustrations and compulsions, which seem to make up most of our life.  “That thou being our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal” – the dark and light patches, field and forest, and sudden changes that lead to a new square – “that we lose not the things that be eternal”: our constant hold on thine unchanging presence, our dependence on thy wisdom and love.  “Deliver us from evil” – not from the pain and trial which test and brace us, but from all that can damage our relation to thee.  “It is faith,” says Grou, “which says this prayer; and faith recognizes only those supernatural evils which wound the Holiness of God and tarnish the purity of the soul.” (J. N. Grou)

The way on which we are set is difficult and obscure; the friction of life, the action of others, and our own tangled and inordinate desires make ceaseless demands on our patience and courage.  We are often fed on bitter and unappetizing food: are invited to envy and covetousness, ambition, and pride – all the unpurified energies of our lower nature struggling for expression.  But the calm splendor of God penetrates, overrules, harmonizes all this changing experience.  We ask to be kept in remembrance of that; especially in those crucial moments when the mystery seems too great, bewilderment overwhelms us, and we are tempted to lose our nerve.  Natural man partakes of the struggles and confusions of the natural order.  Everything about him contradicts the Eternal.  But the man of prayer, because of his personal adherence to God, asks to be delivered from all that:

In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust, let me never be put to confusion:
But rid me and deliver me in thy righteousness; incline thine ear unto me and save me.
(Psalm 31:1-2)

It is from our own evil tendencies above all, our inveterate egotism with its million cunning disguises, our pride, greed, and anger, our steady downward drag to self-satisfaction that we need deliverance: for this we can never vanquish in our own strength.  Do not let us be swamped in the strange tumult and conflict: the evil that results from the clash of wills unharmonized with thy will.  Deliver us by keeping clear that single relation with thee which is our peace.  We want the firm resistance of the overruling Spirit always present in the soul’s deeps to the sudden up-rushes from lower centers of consciousness, the personal devils lodging in the basement, the interior hurly-burly of desires and dislikes; so easily aroused, so hard to quell.  Our amphibious state is so delicately poised, so perilous, that only help from the higher can save us from being conquered by the lower.  Deliver us from our share in the world’s sin, our twist away from Holiness; reinforcing by your energetic grace our feeble will toward the good.  We have reached now a vivid consciousness of “that deep abyss of perversity” of which de Caussade speaks, into which, with so many others, we should fall if God did not hold us.  “It is only through their practical knowledge of this, taught by a repeated personal experience, that the Saints have acquired that fundamental humility, that utter contempt and holy hatred of themselves, of which we see so many proofs in their lives, and which have been the true source of their perfection.” (Jean Pierre de Caussade)  With them we ask that our divergent lives may be brought into line with that one Life in which evil did not operate; which escaped the doom laid upon this planet, and even in the extremity of suffering never faltered in its perfect response to the Father’s Will.

Thus the movement of prayer brings the soul to this realization and this petition; to the status of a supernatural creature, tightly bound in this present life to all the vicissitudes of succession, yet deeply aware of its own distinctness and its own true life as consisting in a total dependence, the closest of personal links with Creative Love.  That being so, it must commit itself without reserve to the hidden directive power; not presuming to ask that it may be tested to the uttermost, knowing its own fragility and the perils which wait for presumptuous souls.  This is the life of faith; and in the consummation of faith, the life of prayer is fulfilled.  “In faith,” says Søren Kierkegaard, “the self bases itself transparently on the power which created it.”  The whole life of prayer is indeed a committal of our separate lives into God’s hand, a perpetual replacing of the objective attitude by the personal and abandoned attitude: and though a certain tension, suffering, and bewilderment are inevitable to our situation, yet there is with this a deep security.  The pawn does not know what will be required of it or what may be before it; but its relation with the Player is always direct and stable, and the object of the Player is always the good of the pawn.  “Our souls are God’s delight, not because of anything they do for him, but because of what he does for them.  All he asks of them is to accept with joy his indulgence, his generosity, his fatherly love.  Consider all your devotion to God in this way, and do not worry any more about what you are or are not.  Be content to be the object of his mercy and look at nothing else.” (Anne Hilarion de Tourville)

“Lead us not into temptation.”  Temptation is that sphere in which the evil dispositions which are present in the world – its whole trend toward self-satisfaction, self-fulfillment, and away from God – appear in their attractiveness and dominate the situation.  We are not to presume on our strength and deliberately seek contact with that.  This spoils the perfection of our meek abandonment to the Spirit; the subordination of our restless will to the steady pressure of God.  To live by faith is to pursue quietly and in peace the path on which we are set, in the midst of the conflicts and confusions of the creature.  In that quiet subordination is fullness of life; not in the passion for self-expression which tries every situation and every relationship and confuses pride with courage and initiative.

Christ seems to have been deeply aware of the fragility of human nature; the folly of heretics, the danger of demanding or attempting too much.  Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.  The spirit may be willing; but do not forget your lowly origin, the flesh is weak.  Therefore, even in your abandonment, remain spiritually alert.  Watch steadily.  Gaze at God: keep your minds attuned to his reality and his call, and so elude the distractions that surround you.  Pray.  Seek his face.  Lift up to him your hearts and speak to him as one friend to another.  Reach out toward him as one friend to another.  Reach out toward him in confident love.  “By two wings,” says Thomas à Kempis, “is man borne up from Earthly things, that is to say with plainness and cleanness: plainness is in the intent and cleanness is in the love.  The good, true, and plain intent looketh toward God, but the clean love maketh assay and tasteth his sweetness.”  So doing, you are drawn more and more deeply into his life, and have less and less to fear from competing attractions, longings, and demands.

The crucial moment for the soul is not when the crown of jewels and the crown of thorns are set before it, as before Saint Catherine of Siena, and it is required to choose between them.  Here none but the utterly unloving could hesitate.  It is the moment when it comes suddenly on the crown of jewels in its full attraction, and does not see the crown of thorns.  To watch and pray means such a quiet and steady concentration on the Eternal as defends us against these perilous moments; and with this an acceptance of weakness and limitation, a meek willingness to learn that way of prudence which is taught by the Wisdom of God.  It means putting aside all ambition to find out how much we can endure; being docile and avoiding the path which is for us marked “dangerous,” even though it be a path that has been trodden by the saints.  Our idea of our own power of resistance usually exceeds what we shall really manage when the pinch comes.  “If all shall be offended in thee, I shall never be offended!” said Saint Peter.  We know what happened to the one who said that.  All we dare to ask is that God will reinforce our will by the energy of his grace, and bring us safely through those normal temptations which none escape.

Nor does this humble moderation, this matter-of-fact dependence, which is the final position of the developing life of prayer, come to us from a religion of Safety First.  It is the teaching of One who knew in the wilderness the full temptation which comes with the possession of great powers, and in Gethsemane the awful face-to-face encounter with the forces of destruction, the horror and trembling of spirit before approaching agony, darkness, and death.  So austere, so arduous is the Christian program, so real the struggle and so rough the journey to which the soul is called, that only when guided by a Spirit who knows the route better than we do, can we hope to get through without disaster.  Any self-willed addition to life’s difficulties brings its own punishment.  There will be plenty of opportunity for courage, staying power, and initiative as well as for humble obedience, for those who follow the guide’s footsteps and are docile to his direction; some narrow ledges and treacherous slopes before we finish.  All will be well if we do not yield to the temptation to tackle them alone; but there is every reason to fear the attractive shortcut, the opportunity to satisfy our thirst for private spiritual adventure.  The saints were driven on by rough tracks and awful darkness, in suffering and loneliness, by cloud and storm.  They reached the summits; but never in their own strength or by following their own ideas – often indeed by taking what seems to onlookers the most unlikely route, because their feet were set upon a supernatural path which others cannot see.

What a deep and beautiful confidence it means if we are to accept this truth; not as a religious notion, but as the most massive fact of our strange mixed life, the culmination of our prayer.  The ultimate humble trust of the little creature which first dared to say, Abba, Father, is placed in the Absolute Love; and finds in the simple return to God the Unchanging, that personal and permanent relation which is the ground of prayer, the sovereign remedy against temptation, and defense against the assaults of the world’s ill.

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