prayer and the bondage of self

(cyprian)

Back in the 1980s, then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), when he was still the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, was a little suspicious of Eastern spirituality. One of the things that he was warning Western Christians about, especially in his cautions about Eastern-style meditation, was actually very valid, though it is not clear that Hindus or Buddhists were actually guilty of it. He was warning about people being too focused on themselves. And that leads us right into today’s gospel, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14). Everyone notes the delicious irony of the fact that the Pharisee ‘spoke this prayer to himself.’ I was trying to get the meaning of the original Greek (pros eauton tauta), and it could be rendered that he spoke this prayer in himself, but most English translations render it to himself; it’s like a reflexive verb. He’s praying, but he’s talking to himself. Even worse than––or at least just as bad as––this Pharisee being judgmental and arrogant is the fact that he was praying to himself. I think we often have a tendency to do this though––God becomes our own ego deified.

the_pharisee_and_the_tax_collectorContrast the body language of the two men. As all Jews did in those days, the proper position for prayer is standing (Gk. statheis). So the Pharisee is standing, ostensibly with his eyes raised to heaven–– eyes raised to heaven, that is, but totally wrapped up in himself. He was admiring himself in a mirror, preening before God. This is a moment worthy of Flannery O’Connor (although at this point she probably would have had him gored by a stray ox or having a vision of hordes of the blind and the lame marching through the Holy of Holies). And then there is the publican, who does not dare to raise his eyes to heaven. Could it be that he too is looking within, but even deeper within, deeper than his shame, deeper than his sin, deeper than his weakness, to God’s mercy which he somehow knows flows like a river at the core of his being. And he is beating his breast, breaking his heart open to receive that mercy. And we all know, as we hear in Ps. 51, that God can never resist a broken humbled heart. So the one with his eyes to heaven is wrapped up in himself. The one who is gazing within––at his own brokenness––is wrapped in the mercy of God.

This is the key, I think: Prayer is allowing ourselves to be emptied completely, as Master Romuald says––or as a Sufi friend of mine puts it, “Empty yourself of yourself.” There’s another Sufi saying that comes to my mind too: when the self is forgotten and God is remembered. That’s getting close to pure prayer, standing humbly before God, either as one stands before an emperor or as a chick stands before a mother hen, but either way in a very humble position. And then God exalts us. That’s the promise.

There is a phrase of John Main that never fails to get to me. He taught that the inner journey, especially in our day and age, can tap into the incredible hunger that we have for self-analysis and “the self-preoccupation that often masquerades as spirituality.” There is always a danger that the interior journey can become getting caught in the trap of our own subjective experience, instead of being “relieved of the bondage of self,” as the Twelve Step Program says. We don’t want to get caught up in dwelling on our sinfulness without any notion of the mercy of God any more than we want to get caught preening before God praying to ourself. What we are seeking through our journey to the depths of our being is the indwelling reign of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit who is our source. We are going through ourselves, through our interiority, to get beyond ourselves. Anthony Bloom wrote in his marvelous little book Beginning to Pray that “It is not a journey into my own inwardness, it is a journey through my own self,”––through my own inwardness––“in order to emerge from the deepest level of self into the place where [God] is, the point at which God and I meet,”[1] the “Inner Mercy Seat,” you might call it.

Even what the rishis of India discovered in their journey through the levels of consciousness was not the small self, the individual self. “Self-Realization” is about realizing the Para-atman–the Great Self who subsists under my small self and into whom I disappear, as they might describe it, like a drop disappears into the ocean. That’s not narcissism; that’s the ultimate death of self. How the Buddha described what he had experienced was an-atta–that there is no self at all! That there is only change, as a matter of fact what causes all suffering is clinging to the notion of self! Now that is not our language for it, not the Christian understanding of the relationship of the self to ultimate reality, but what St. Paul too discovers after he is poured out like a libation (as we heard in the second reading today [2 Tm 4:6-8, 18-19]) is that it is I, no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). That’s not exactly the same as saying we disappear into the Great Self like a drop into the ocean or that there is no self, but I think it is pretty close to the same intuition, finding that which is beyond the self, the source of the self.

How many times does Jesus give the piece of advice that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted in one form or another? This is absolutely central to Jesus’ way in all things, and in this parable Jesus also applies it even to prayer: those who humble themselves in prayer will be exalted. And maybe that’s why prayer and the call for mercy are so often tied together, the Jesus Prayer, for instance—“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me” which comes from this very gospel story. Or Abba Isaac’s mantra in Cassian’s Conference X, from Psalm 70: “O God come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.” Abba Isaac says this phrase was chosen from out of all the scriptures because these words contain humility and “consciousness of one’s own frailty.”[2] Asking for mercy isn’t always about asking for forgiveness; sometimes it’s simply asking for help; sometimes it’s simply acknowledging that there is something greater than me in the Universe and I need that Something who is actually a Someone. Maybe it’s a desperate cry to be relieved of the bondage of self in whose tendrils I often find myself entangled. The exact words might not matter so much, but the attitude is everything, standing before God as if before an emperor, or like a chick before its mother.

Another play on words in this gospel passage is with the Greek word for “righteous.” Even the Jerome Biblical Commentary, which is usually pretty dry and staid, says that the irony here is “red hot.” We don’t hear the pun in English. The one man thought he was dikaios–just or righteous, and yet he remained a sinner; the other man thought he was a sinner and went away dedikatomenos, derived from the same root––“justified,” made righteous. The one who thought he was righteous was a sinner; the one who thought he was a sinner walked away righteous. But there is another lovely accidental parallel today; St. Paul says in the 2nd Letter to Timothy that he is wearing the crown of dikaiosuas-righteousness. How does he get that crown? Because he has been poured out like a libation, a beautiful eucharistic image, poured out like an offering. One of my favorite songs is taken from this verse in 2 Tim: “Only this I want, / but to know the Lord / and to bear his cross / so to wear the crown he wore.” This is how we win the crown of righteousness, when we bear the cross, and allow ourselves to be poured out.

A side note: Lucien Deiss thought that the church herself is sometimes guilty of the same thing the Pharisee was: when we pride ourselves in being a church of good works but fail to recognize, encourage and promote (the key verbs of Nostra Aetate) the good works done by other people of good will; when we as Christians or Catholics take pride in our fasting and penance, and fail to note the real asceticism in other traditions and even the ways to union with God that they have discovered (as Cardinal Ratzinger himself would later point out); if we spend all our time trying to prove that the fullness of truth subsists in our tradition without noting how the seeds of the Word have been scattered all across human civilization and consciousness. A little of this kind of humility would go a long way, as our current pope is certainly modeling in this day and age.

One more little play on words as we head to the Table: the Greek words for what the Pharisee is doing is eucharisto soi–“I give thanks to you,” I am making eucharist to you. He’s giving thanks that he is so much better than everyone else. It’s not the same “fearfully wonderfully made” that the psalmist humbly expresses in Psalm 138, and it’s certainly not what Jesus gives thanks for. I remember from a lot of the polemical debates around liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, some of the warning offered by the most careful-minded of the traditionalists was the fear that the liturgy was becoming the assembly’s worship of itself, praise of itself, instead of being united in common adoration. I got this from Henri du Lubac: “Humanism is not spontaneously Christian. Christian humanism must be a converted humanism. … all of humanity must die to itself in each one of its members in order to live, transfigured, in God. There is no definitive communion if not in a common adoration.”[3] As we approach the Table, let’s use Jesus’ words of thanksgiving which we hear so often and say eucharisto soi––and give thanks to God for having revealed to the merest children what is hidden from the wise––praying that we may be one of those children, and give thanks that the mighty have been cast down from their thrones––even if we might be one of the mighty cast down!––and in their place the lowly have been lifted up, and allow ourselves to be poured out as a libation so as to wear the crown of righteousness.

[1]Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (New York: Paulist Press, 1970), 46.

[2]John Cassian: The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey, OP. New York: New man Press, 1997; X:3, p. 379.

[3]Henri De Lubac, Cattolicesimo, pp. 281-282 (Bose)

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