This Petition with which the Son of God concludes this divine prayer embodies the substance of all the other Petitions. To show its force and importance our Lord made use of this Petition when, on the eve of His Passion, He prayed to God His Father for the salvation of mankind. I pray, He said, that thou keep them from evil. In this Petition, then, which He not only commanded us to use, but made use of Himself, He has epitomised, as it were, the meaning and spirit of all the other Petitions. For if we obtain what this Petition asks, that is, the protection of God against evil, which enables us to stand secure and safe against the machinations of the world and the devil, then, as St. Cyprian remarks, nothing more remains to be asked.
Such, then, being the importance of this Petition, the diligence of the pastor in its exposition should be great. The difference between this and the preceding Petition consists in this, that in the one we beg to avoid sin, in the other, to escape punishment.
It cannot be necessary to remind the faithful of the numerous evils and calamities to which we are exposed, and how much we stand in need of the divine assistance. The many and serious miseries of human life have been fully described by sacred and profane writers, and there is hardly any one who has not observed them either in his own life or in that of others.
We are all convinced of the truth of these words of Job, that model of patience: Man, born of woman, and living for a short time, is filled with many miseries. He cometh forth like a flower, and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow, and never continueth in the same state. That no day passes without its own trouble or annoyance is proved by these words of Christ the Lord: Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. Indeed, the condition of human life is pointed out by the Lord Himself, when He admonishes us that we are to take up our cross daily and follow Him.
Since, therefore, everyone must realise the trials and dangers inseparable from this life, it will not be difficult to convince the faithful that they ought to implore of God deliverance from evil, since no inducement to prayer exercises a more powerful influence over men than a desire and hope of deliverance from those evils which oppress or threaten them. There is in the heart of everyone a natural inclination to have instant recourse to God in the face of danger, as it is written: Fill their faces with shame, and they shall seek thy name, Lord.
If, then, in calamities and dangers the unbidden impulse of nature prompts men to call on God, it surely becomes the duty of those to whose fidelity and prudence their salvation is entrusted to instruct them carefully in the proper performance of this duty.
WE SHOULD SEEK FIRST THE GLORY OF GOD
For there are some who, contrary to the command of Christ, reverse the order of this prayer. He who commands us to have recourse to Him in the day of tribulation, has also prescribed to us the order in which we should pray. It is His will that, before we pray to be delivered from evil, we ask that the name of God be sanctified, that His kingdom come, and so on through the other Petitions, which are, as it were, so many steps by which we reach this last Petition.
Yet there are those who, if their head, their side, or their foot, ache; if they suffer loss of property; if menaces or dangers from an enemy alarm them; if famine, war or pestilence afflict them, omit all the other Petitions of the Lord's Prayer and ask only to be delivered from these evils. This practice is at variance with the command of Christ the Lord: Seek first the kingdom of God.
To pray, therefore, as we ought, we should have in view the greater glory of God, even when we ask deliverance from calamities, trials and dangers. Thus, when David offered this prayer: Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, he subjoined a reason by which he showed that he was most desirous of God's glory, saying: For there is no one in death that is mindful of thee, and who shall confess to thee in hell. And again, having implored God to have mercy on him, he added: I will teach the unjust thy ways; and the wicked shall be converted to thee.
The faithful should be encouraged to use this salutary manner of praying and to imitate the example of the Prophet. And at the same time their attention should be called to the marked difference that exists between the prayers of the infidel and those of the Christian.
The infidel, too, begs of God to cure his diseases and to heal his wounds, to deliver him from approaching or impending evils; but he places his principal hope of deliverance in the remedies provided by nature, or prepared by man. He makes no scruple of using medicine no matter by whom prepared, no matter if accompanied by charms, spells or other diabolical arts, provided he can promise himself some hope of recovery.
Not so the Christian. When visited by sickness, or other adversity, he flies to God as his supreme refuge and defence. Acknowledging and revering God alone as the author of all his good and his deliverer he ascribes to Him whatever healing virtue resides in medicines, convinced that they help the sick only in so far as God wills it. For it is God who has given medicines to man to heal his corporal infirmities; and hence these words of Ecclesiasticus: The most High hath created medicines out of the earth, and a wise man will not abhor them. He, therefore, who has pledged his fidelity to Jesus Christ, does not place his principal hope of recovery in such remedies; he places it in God, the author of these medicines.
Hence the Sacred Scriptures condemn the conduct of those who, confiding in the power of medicine, seek no assistance from God. Nay more, those who regulate their lives by the laws of God, abstain from the use of all medicines which are not evidently intended by God to be medicinal; and, were there even a certain hope of recovery by using any other, they abstain from them as so many charms and diabolical artifices.
The faithful, then, are to be exhorted to place their confidence in God. Our most bountiful Father has commanded us to beg of Him our deliverance from evil, in order that His command should inspire us with the hope of obtaining the object of our prayers. Of this truth the Sacred Scriptures afford many illustrations, so that they whom reason does not inspire with confidence may be persuaded to hope by a multitude of examples. Abraham, Jacob, Lot, Joseph and David are to all unexceptional witnesses of the divine goodness; and the instances recorded in the New Testament of persons rescued from the greatest dangers, by the efficacy of devout prayer, are so numerous as to make it unnecessary to mention special cases. Therefore we shall content ourselves with one text from the Prophet, which is sufficient to confirm even the weakest: The just cried, and the Lord heard them; and delivered them out of all their troubles.
We now come to explain the meaning and nature of the Petition. Let the faithful understand that in it we by no means ask deliverance from every evil.
There are some things which are commonly considered evils, and which, notwithstanding, are of advantage to those who endure them. Such was the sting of the flesh to which the Apostle was subjected in order that, by the aid of divine grace, power might be perfected in infirmity. When the pious man learns the salutary influence of such things, far from praying for their removal, he rejoices in them exceedingly. We pray, therefore, against those evils only, which do not conduce to our spiritual interests; not against such as are profitable to our salvation.
The full meaning of this Petition, therefore, is, that having been freed from sin and from the danger of temptation, we may be delivered from internal and external evils; that we may be protected from floods, fire and lightning; that the fruits of the earth be not destroyed by hail; that we be not visited by famine, sedition or war. We ask that God may banish disease, pestilence and disaster from us; that He may keep us from slavery, imprisonment, exile, betrayals, treachery, and from all other evils which fill mankind with terror and misery. Finally, we pray that God would remove all occasions of sin and iniquity.
We do not, however, pray to be delivered only from those things which all look upon as evils, but also from those things which almost all consider to be good, such as riches, honours, health, strength and even life itself; that is, we ask that these things be not detrimental or ruinous to our soul's welfare.
We also beg of God that we be not cut off by a sudden death; that we provoke not His anger against us; that we be not condemned to suffer the punishments reserved for the wicked; that we be not sentenced to endure the fire of purgatory, from which we piously and devoutly implore that others may be liberated.
This is the explanation of this Petition given by the Church in the Mass and Litanies, where we pray to be delivered from evil past, present and to come.
The goodness of God delivers us from evil in a variety of ways. He prevents impending evils, as we read with regard to the Patriarch Jacob, whom He delivered from the enemies that were stirred up against him on account of the slaughter of the Sichimites. For we read: The terror of God fell upon all the cities round about, and they durst not pursue after them as they went away.
The blessed who reign with Christ the Lord in heaven have been delivered by the divine assistance from all evil; but, as for us, although the Almighty delivers us from some evils, it is not His will that, while journeying in this, our mortal pilgrimage, we should be entirely exempt from all. The consolations with which God sometimes refreshes those who labor under adversity are, however, equivalent to an exemption from all evil; and with these the Prophet consoled himself when he said: According to the multitude of my sorrows in my heart, thy consolations have rejoiced my soul.
God, moreover, delivers men from evil when he preserves them unhurt in the midst of extreme danger, as He did in the case of the children thrown into the fiery furnace, whom the fire did not burn; and of Daniel, whom the lions did not injure.
According to the interpretation of St. Basil the Great, St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine, the devil is specially called the evil one, because he was the author of man's transgression, that is, of his sin and iniquity, and also because God makes use of him as an instrument to chastise sinful and impious men. For the evils which mankind endures in punishment of sin are appointed by God; and this is the meaning of these words of Holy Writ: Shall there be evil in a city which the Lard hath not done? and: I am the Lord and there is none else: I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil.
The devil is also called evil, because, although we have never injured him, he wages perpetual war against us, and pursues us with mortal hatred. If we put on the armour of faith and the shield of innocence, he can have no power to hurt us; nevertheless he unceasingly tempts us by external evils and every other means of annoyance within his reach. Wherefore we beseech God to deliver us from the evil one.
We say from evil, not from evils, because the evils which we experience from others we ascribe to the arch enemy as their author and instigator. Hence instead of cherishing resentment against our neighbour, we should turn our hatred and anger against Satan himself, by whom men are instigated to harm us.
Therefore if your neighbour has injured you in any respect, when you pray to God your Father, beg of Him not only to deliver you from evil, that is, from the injuries which your neighbour inflicts; but also to rescue your neighbour from the power of the devil, whose wicked suggestions impel men to wrong.
Next we must remember that if by prayers and supplications we are not delivered from evil, we should endure our afflictions with patience, convinced that it is the will of God that we should so endure them. If, therefore, God hear not our prayers, we are not to yield to feelings of peevishness or discontent; we must submit in all things to the divine will and pleasure, regarding as useful and salutary to us that which happens in accordance with the will of God, not that which is agreeable to our own wishes.
Finally, the pious hearers should be admonished that during our mortal career we should be prepared to meet every kind of affliction and calamity, not only with patience, but even with joy. For it is written: All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution; and again: Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God; and further: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so enter into his glory? A servant should not be greater than his master; and as St. Bernard says: Delicate members do not become a head crowned with thorns. The glorious example of Urias challenges our imitation. When urged by David to remain at home, he replied: The ark of God, and Israel, and Juda, dwell in tents; and shall I go into my house?
If to prayer we bring with us these reflections and these dispositions, although surrounded by menaces and encompassed by evils on every side, we shall, like the three children who passed unhurt amidst the flames, be preserved uninjured; or at least, like the Machabees, we shall bear up against adverse fortune with firmness and fortitude.
In the midst of contumelies and tortures we should imitate the blessed Apostles, who, after they had been scourged, rejoiced exceedingly that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for Christ Jesus. Filled with such sentiments, we shall sing in transports of joy: Princes have persecuted me without cause; and my heart hath been in awe of thy words; I will rejoice at thy words, as one that hath found great spoil.