Peace on Earth, good will to men.
That’s how the old text is translated, and how it’s quoted in English in religious texts. During the winter holidays, we tend to hear it in Christmas carols and readings.
But to a word geek like me, it comes across a little differently–and that difference is speaking to me this month. Comforting me, teaching me and giving me a much-needed dose of tough love.
You see, I encountered the Latin words many years ago when I sang my first Mass, one by Beethoven. Beethoven, like many composers of his time, composed a lot of religious works because the Church was one of the only potential providers of support to a musician.
The experience of singing the beautiful music–my first piece of this nature–forged a positive association with the Latin Mass, even though I don’t belong to this religion. The phrase about peace on Earth occurs in the second of five parts of the Mass, and the Latin text reads: et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. When, years later, I dabbled in beginning Latin, I dug into the phrase and realized something really cool.
The translation works at the beginning: pax is peace, in terra means on Earth, hominibus is the form of “humans” that implies something being given to it. So we have peace being given to mankind. But the last phrase–bonae voluntatis–is in the possessive case, attached to hominibus.
It’s not “peace on earth, good will to men.”
It’s “peace on earth to men who have good will.”
Holy shit. It changes everything.
Now, before you scholars start having heart attacks, I’m quite aware that the oldest forms of the Christian texts are not in Latin; thus I might be wrong about the most original meaning of the New Testament text. I could even be wrong about the Latin. It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m only using the Latin the way I use so many things, as a personal talisman du jour.
But why? Why is it helping me?
Several reasons. In general, it helps me to understand that this idea of general good will may not be realistic and I don’t need to beat myself up about not feeling bathed in it. It helps me to be given a message of hope mixed with accountability: yes, there is peace and grace, but it doesn’t come for free and it doesn’t come to all. The aether won’t fart rainbows just because it’s a certain season of the year. It’s by having good will that we experience peace, even if the “good will” may only be strong enough to help us ask for more of it.
Peace, in an external sense, has never come for free; we know this. Bits and pieces, at best, are bought with bitter conflict and sacrifice. Peace, in an internal sense, doesn’t come for free either, and today I get to remind myself that good will is one payment I need to come up with if I want some.
Good will; good voluntatis. As in voluntary, volition, volunteer. Not only will or desire, but conscious intention and willingness. I don’t have it, or at least not enough of it, and it helps me to know that.
Saying this about myself isn’t a way of putting myself down. It’s a relief. The way we are relieved, though not necessarily happy, when we find a cause for those mysterious symptoms we’ve been having. Thinking about this phrase puts me over the line separating “I should really get this looked at” to “I’m calling today.” It just got to me: I want some feeling of peace so badly, and this is why I don’t feel it.
My spirit and soul are sick, and I have been unwilling to look into the depth of the pain they are in. The recent depression and the thoughts that come with it have left them bruised and flinching, and I need to understand how greatly they are in need of care. I have been unwilling to ask people for help with the actions I need to take, and unwilling to cry out to my God for healing. I am sick with fear, and envy, and guilt, and resentment, and the various other assassins I carry inside me. My will is not good, and there isn’t going to be any pax in my personal terra until it gets a bit better.