In the first instalment of his masterful Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI discusses, amongst other things, the different petitions of the Our Father. These are an illuminating and nourishing series of analyses, but given all the terrible things that are happening in the world at the moment, I thought it would be apposite to focus today on the final petition, namely for God to ‘deliver us from evil’. Pope Benedict begins his study of this article of the Prayer with a reflection on whether or not we should read it as a request for deliverance from evil in general, or from the Evil One in the particular – his conclusion is that the two are ultimately inseparable, and also that:
‘The Our Father in general and this petition in particular are trying to tell us that it is only when you have lost God that you have lost yourself; then you are nothing more than a random product of evolution. Then the “dragon” really has won. So long as the dragon cannot wrest God from you, your deepest being remains unharmed, even in the midst of all the evils that threaten you. Our translation is thus correct to say: “Deliver us from evil,” with evil in the singular. Evils (plural) can be necessary for our purification, but evil (singular) destroys. This, then, is why we pray from the depths of our soul not to be robbed of our faith, which enables us to see God, which binds us with Christ.’
Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (2007), p.166, Bloomsbury.
Whilst it is good and right to pray for deliverance from particular evils – the trials and tribulations in life – the emphasis here is on evil as a force, and more specifically as a person, the Devil, whose sole aim is to separate us from the love of God – the love which alone can sustain us through all the trials of life. If we have not faith in Jesus Christ, all the sufferings of this world can easily break us down and lead us into despair, but if we have this faith, we can bear all manner of things (c.f.; Romans 8:31-39). The Devil knows this, and this is why we must in a sense be more aware of that singular evil which would seek to separate us from the only thing which can give us hope and sustain our souls.
The martyrs of history, and of today, were and are sustained by this faith, that despite everything God was and is with them, in Christ, transfiguring their suffering and giving them freedom in the knowledge that whatever the evils of the world may throw at them, their hope lies in being bound to a source that evil ultimately cannot touch, and that Love is stronger than all the evil men do, stronger even than death:
‘In this sense, the last petition brings us back to the first three: In asking to be liberated from the power of evil, we are ultimately asking for God’s Kingdom, for union with his will, and for the sanctification of his name…
…Yes, we may and should ask the Lord also to free the world, ourselves, and the many individuals and peoples who suffer from the tribulations that make life almost unbearable. We may and we should understand this extension of the final petition of the Our Father also as an examination of conscience directed at ourselves – as an appeal to collaborate in breaking the predominance of “evils.” But for all that, we must not lose sight of the proper order of goods and of the connection of evils with “evil.”’
In a sense then, evil is anything that wants to separate us from God, to avert our gaze from Christ and lead us to see created things (however good in and of themselves they may be) as our ultimate Good. Fidelity to God, who is the source of all Good, our true source and end, will then inevitably come into conflict with various forces which seek lesser goods and desire us to do so as well – this is why the way of the Christian is always the Way of the Cross; we see in the life of Our Lord that when Goodness itself entered into the world, men sought to harm Him and kill Him, for ‘everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed’ (John 3:20). Following Christ means walking the same path.
The Evil One himself, the Devil, Satan, the Prince of Lies, is the archetype and apotheosis of this – the nature of his being is that he is anti-Cross, because the Cross represents the supposed weakness of Love, which refuses to take the easy way or to assert earthly power in order to effect personal gain. Satan loves power, so much so that he is ultimately rendered impotent, curved in on himself in his furious desire for it; conversely, the Way of the Cross seems in worldly terms to be folly and weakness, but in its fidelity to the Good, to Love, it triumphs – by showing the world a more excellent way, by leaving hope in its trail, and softening hearts hardened by the cruelties of mankind. Power wins its battles, but the sacrifice of love begets more of its own, and has already won the war.
The true power of God in fact is in His weakness – in the helplessness of the child born in a manger, in the young man hanging on the Cross, His disciples having fled and His accusers revelling in His tragic end. It was by these things – this humbling of Himself – that God was able to show Himself to us, to unfold unto us His true nature, and to effect our redemption from the easy path of sin. The world tempts us with lucrative paths, we often feel beset by hardship and perplexity, and all the while the devil on our shoulder calls out to us that there is an easy way out – to give in to the evil, forget the good, take our eyes off of Our Lord and focus on the here and now, the short term gain.
Yet the Way of the Cross, hard though it sometimes may be, overwhelmingly so for some, is the only way that leads to the glory of the Resurrection, to the open door through which we can see the fulfilment of all our hopes, the foundation of all we hold dear, and the fullness of that Love which sustains us in our trials and in our joys. Let us pray that, emboldened by the faithful examples of the holy martyrs past and present, we be delivered from evil – from all that would separate us from the Good, from God and His Love, and the hope that we have in Him – that we might be able to say with Asaph:
‘Whom have I in heaven but thee?
And there is nothing upon earth that I
desire besides thee.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion for ever.’