Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nilling and Willing

I ran into an apt but unusual word in a fresh translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions by Garry Wills. The word is, “nill” for “will not”, or for “negate.” Here is the sentence that I find so remarkable:

“This is all I wanted, to nill my own will, will yours.”[1]

How difficult that is! For Augustine it was as painful a process as it is for us. He says, “But where I was going no ship or carriage or walking could take me … Not only going but arriving there was simply a matter of willing it—but willing it with a strong and unified will, not a partial and wounded will, one jerking and lunging, part of it surging, part of it sinking,”[2] What he discovered with much despair and tears was that “there is a sickness of the soul, weighed down by compulsions that impede its response to the truth. In that sense there are two wills, each halfhearted, each lacking what the other has.”[3]

But this was neither academic or impersonal. He says, “But I, in my hesitation over whether to serve the Lord at last, as I had long been disposed to do, was the same man willing as was nilling, both were me. For my willing was as halfhearted as my nilling. I was at war within, was exiled from myself.”[4] What was it that held him back? “The triflingest things, the very hollowest things of the hollow-headed, had stalled me – my entrenched lusts, plucking me back by my fleshly clothing, whispering low: Can you cast us off? And: From this moment, never more to be with us! And: From this moment, never to do this! … they no longer flaunted themselves before me on my way, but were tittering behind me, as if furtively picking at me while I pulled away from them, trying to make me look back.”[5] There is here the pain of abandonment of long fondled lusts and desires that tugs at the human soul (psyche – soul, self). This is not easy stuff to endure, but the warning of St. Benedict sounds in my ear, “death lies close by the gate of pleasure.”[6] Augustine then hears Lady Self-Control teasing with smiling insistence, “Why do you stand alone, which is no standing at all? Throw yourself on him! Do you think he will not stay your fall? Give up fear, and throw yourself—he will catch you, and will heal you.”[7]

The surrender when it comes, it comes with sweet relief. He picks up the book in the garden and reads, ‘“Give up indulgence and drunkenness, give up lust and obscenity, give up strife and rivalries and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ the Lord, leaving no further allowance for fleshly desires.’ The very instant I finished that sentence, light was flooding my heart with assurance, and all my shadowy reluctance evanesced.”[8] It is at this point that he finally is able to declare, “This is all I wanted, to nill my own will, will yours.”[9]

The conflict of St. Augustine is the conflict of everyman. That is the crunch point … willing and nilling, that calls us all to renewed surrenders. Letting go is scary, because, after all it is the self that we are letting go. It is Jesus who said, “Whoever would save his life (psyche – soul, or self) will lose it, but whoever loses his life (soul, or self) for my sake will find it.”[10] We are hard learners and often must reach the point of utter helplessness before we let go, be still, let drop, relax, and know that he is God.[11] Then, O the blessed relief of being out from under.

Willing and Nilling and The Bondservant

I have long been drawn to an image of commitment in Exodus, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out for nothing … But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the door or the door post. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”[12] Forever is a very long time. Lord, I would be your slave, your bondservant forever.

I note the mixed, very human motives. The master has given the servant a wife and she has born him children in his servitude. He loves his master, and he also loves his wife and children. I can’t help reading this with a little “upstairs, downstairs” overtone from my own cultural background. I am drawn particularly to the finality of the decision; one bears visibly the mark of his slavery by wearing an ear ring. The N.I.V. translation of Psalm 40 picks the theme up with clarity, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, O my God, your law is written in my heart.”[13] In effect, with Augustine, I pray, “This is all I wanted, to nill my own will, will yours.” You, Jesus, my Lord, give my life the only meaning I have. My life is hidden with you in God.[14] You, are in your Father, and you are in me, and I in you.[15]

There is implicit suffering in that, and in my humanity and weakness. From time to time I shrink from that suffering, but with Paul, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”[16]

Both the surrender to your will, O my God, and the sufferings you endured are picked up in the Letter to the Hebrews where Psalm 40:6-8 is directly applied to you. You lived your earthly life in perfect surrender to the will of your own Father, you taking the form of a servant[17], nilling your own will, and praying for us and in us, “Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will.”[18] You in me, and I in you, you make for us both the perfect surrender that I can only desire, but desire it I do, and strive for it I will to do, praying my own prayer in your words, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” You bid me follow you, and then you give me the grace to do so, saying, “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.[19]

Again, “This is all I wanted, to nill my own will, will yours.”[20]

[1] Garry Wills, Saint Augustine: Confessions, (London:Penguin Classics, 2006), IX, 1:7.
[2] Ibid. VIII, 5.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The Rule of St. Benedict, Ch. 7, On Humility
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid. IX, 1:7
[10] Matthew 16:25
[11] Psalm 46:10
[12] Exodus 21:2, 5-6
[13] Psalm 40:6-8
[14] Colossians 3:3
[15] John 14:20
[16] Colossians 1:24
[17] Philippians 2:7
[18] Mark 14:36
[19] Philippians 2:12b-13
[20] Garry Wills, Saint Augustine: Confessions, (London:Penguin Classics, 2006), IX, 1:7.