Potest Qui Vult: Free Will and Responsibility

A while back, Greg wrote an article on this blog inspired by his secondary school motto – Ora et Labora. It’s a great article, a reflection on the need to ground our work in prayer. However, I too, have a pretentious secondary school Latin motto – Potest qui Vult, and not to be outdone, I present to you, dear reader, an article based on its English meaning: he who wills, can. Now, before I start, I should point out that the Latin here is not gender-specific; potest is simply the third person form of the word possum, which means ‘to be able to’. She who wills can, too. My school translated it that way because it was a typical Catholic boys’ school. For the sake of convenience however, I’m going to stick with the masculine translation I’m familiar with. So please keep in mind that if you happen to be a lady, I’m writing this article for you too!

The question I would like to ask and answer, then, is this: he who wills can… what?

The immediate answer may seem to be this: that he who wills can succeed. And indeed, from a secular viewpoint, it should seem an obvious conclusion to draw: whoever dreams big can then work hard and achieve those dreams. But yet, basic economics seems to disprove this. We live in a world of scarcity, and that means that in a dog-eat-dog competition, there are bound to be losers. Indeed, for some (but not all) of us in my secondary school days, the very fact that we were in this school meant that we failed to get into a different school. Perhaps because we did not Ora et Labora hard enough. Rather, we had to learn what it meant to get up after receiving a hard knock, and to this day some of my friends love our alma mater for imparting to us that very lesson.

From the viewpoint of faith, as well, this answer does not seem to hold water. I’m reminded of Mother Teresa’s famous saying: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” And indeed, doing and believing the right thing can sometimes result in being martyred for those very actions and beliefs. One needs to look no further than Jesus himself, who had to suffer so greatly on the Cross. Of course, as a Christian I believe Jesus does succeed in his goal of bringing salvation to man, but this requires me to believe in a truth that transcends my physical existence, to believe in the existence of the soul, and in salvation and damnation. For the Christian, ‘he who wills can succeed’ is true only if we are not referring to a worldly success, but rather, a heavenly one.

Perhaps then we can propose another answer: he who wills can endure. And indeed, endurance is an important aspect of faith, and perhaps even a positive quality to have in the secular world too. “The Sovereign Lord comes to my help,” says the writer of Isaiah, “so that I am untouched by the insults. So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.” (Is 50:7) And indeed, with God’s help we can overcome the trials of this life, come what may, in the hope of passing to our heavenly reward.

But to interpret it this way has its negative connotations too. After all, is life nothing but an endless stream of misery to be endured? True, life can be hard, but as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, traditionally Catholic countries like Spain, France and Italy have a well-deserved reputation of being merry and festive. This miserable view of life clashes with the idea of Christians as people of the Gospel – good news. Catholics are called to be joyful. As Hillaire Belloc wrote:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,

There’s always laughter and fine red wine.

At least I’ve always found it so,

Benedicamus domino!

Perhaps then to come to a satisfying answer, we have to take a few steps back, and take the phrase as it is: he who wills, can. As Catholics, will in this context invokes the idea of free will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

CCC 1730: God created a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions.

And furthermore:

CCC 1734: Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.

Free will is sometimes puzzling to me. I sometimes feel that people can be saintlier than angels, or more evil than devils. (Is that a quote from somewhere? It might be.) But perhaps that is a testament to God’s love for us that He allows us to be as good or bad as we possibly can. That is why we are responsible for the freedom given to us. That is another lesson that my alma mater imparted to me. It’s been almost ten years since I left my school. Some of my schoolmates have done extremely well for themselves, and some live exemplary Christian lives. On the other hand, as a good friend of mine stated to the more contemporary students there during his stint as a relief teacher: “Take a good look around you. Ten years from now some of you will be in jail.” Perhaps not the most tactful pearl of wisdom, but a true one nonetheless, from our experience.

So today, Potest Qui Vult to me signifies the wondrous and awful responsibility God has placed in my hands. The responsibility to live the life that He has given me well. To make the truth known to all mankind: that he (or she!) who wills can seek the face of God. Can bear the light of Christ even in places of the most hopeless darkness. Can love God, and be loved by Him in turn. And of course, can truly be with Him one day in Paradise.

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

 

The Excellent Exsultet

Greg refelcts on the beautiful Easter prayer, the Exsultet.

“Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,

exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,

let the trumpet of salvation

sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!”

Each time I hear this being sung at the beginning of every Easter vigil Mass, my heart and soul simply feel so uplifted, ready to exalt in the Resurrection of Christ together with His Church! The Exsultet holds such deep meaning, both in its verses and in the beautiful symbolism it uses. A century-old prayer that has been almost unaltered since the Middle Ages, the practice probably dates to even before that.

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Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds

Garrett muses on what fantasy fiction can teach us about our faith journeys.

In 1986, a writer named Stephen R. Donaldsen published an essay called “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World”. By then a renowned fantasy author himself, Donaldsen achieved fame through his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, which was famous for it’s handling of moral issues. In this essay, Donaldsen elaborated on the two terms he used to define his work – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’. It is these two terms that I’d like to look at and evaluate, not simply because I found the essay insightful, but because I believe that the terms epic and fantasy as Donaldsen describes them find their fulfilment in Jesus (as all things eventually do).

In part 1, we’ll look at the more familiar term, fantasy. The word itself when applied to entertainment needs almost no introduction, as shown by the popularity of the Lord of the Rings series of films, and more recently, the Game of Thrones television series, which seems to owe no small part of its success to scenes of sexual violence, torture and gore. The word ‘fantasy’ conjures up images of a pseudo-medieval world where men (or women) in shining armor prance about, alongside wizards and dragons. But is there really all there is to the Fantasy genre?

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7 Last Words — “Father, into your hands …” (Luke 23:46)

“Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). This is the last sentence that Jesus spoke before he died on the cross, for us. In the Good Friday service of the Catholic Tradition, this is also the last sentence that the presider recites before the entire congregation kneels down in silence and acknowledges the harsh reality of Jesus’ death. These few words, simple and child-like but pregnant with poignancy speaks so much of Jesus’ reckless abandonment to his father – it reflects his radical trust and complete surrender to God.

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7 Last Words — “It is Finished” (John 19:30)

Chris reflects on the very last words of Jesus, and what they mean for our Christian mission here on earth.

Mission Accomplished. For the longest time in my childhood, the words “Mission Accomplished” were my two favorite words in the English Language because they always appeared with the completion of a particular level and/or scenario in a video game. Be it Super Mario Brothers, Harvest Moon or Grand Theft Auto, I enjoyed playing these games as they required the fulfillment of a designated mission. The completion of a mission often gave me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. More importantly, however, the completion of a mission opened up yet another (unknown) level that I could further explore and with it came another mission to be fulfilled. This cycle was repeated until I finished playing the entire game.

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7 Last Words — “Woman, behold your son …” (John 19:26-27)

Chris reflects on the truly self-sacrificial love of Jesus, and how this love can be an example for us.

What pain and what agony Jesus must have felt when He said those words to his loved ones. What pangs of loss and anguish that Jesus must have experienced knowing that He would be (momentarily) separated from His mother and His beloved disciples. Separation: have we all not experienced this in one way or another before? Have we all not felt pain through separation, death and loss? Separation implies a dis-connection – to separate is to break away, to break apart, to be divorced from community; indeed the oft-used phrase “to go our separate ways” is undeniably tinged with melancholy and sadness. Here, then, we see a visceral portrayal of Jesus’ humanity – His desire for community and intimacy. Indeed, apart from being the savior of the world, Jesus was also a beloved son, a beloved brother, and a loving friend. Similar to you and I, Jesus also wanted to love and be loved by those around Him, especially in seasons of sorrow and loss.

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7 Last Words — “Truly, I say to you …” (Luke 23:43)

Chris reflects on the paradox of the ‘good thief’ who came to conversion by Jesus’ side on the Ctoss.

Imagine a middle-aged man who has lived a life of debauchery, decadence and waste. A man whom society would probably consider a menace, a “good-for-nothing” and an absolute failure in life. Imagine that this man whom many have given up on – possibly including himself – decides one day that he has had it, that an ultimatum is nigh. He thus commits a heinous crime: he steals something very valuable, clearly violating one of Moses’ 10 Commandments, a crime that requires him to be executed – hanged on a cross to die on Mount Golgotha … right next to Jesus Christ.

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