30th Sunday of the Year
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal (Sir. 35:17)
What are the most important qualities of prayer taught by Jesus? We know that at one point the apostles themselves ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. They had so frequently witnessed their Master wrapped in prayer, and not just when he went off alone to pray, but even in the midst of His extremely hectic daily ministry of the Gospel. They wanted to learn how to pray like He does, for they witnessed how prayer energized Him for His exhausting ministry to souls, and they also saw how His prayer filled Him with a peace and joy they had not yet experience in their own lives. What, then, is the secret of His prayer?
For two weeks now we have had Gospels that present important teachings of Jesus about prayer, about how to pray so as to tap into the life giving, energizing power of God that transforms one’s daily existence and supports lives often filled with trials, with hectic activity, and, at other times, with a numbing boredom. He wants to teach us how to pray so that we too can experience true peace and joy in our lives, no matter what the conditions of our life. Last week Jesus taught us the parable of the woman who seeks justice from a dishonest judge. There we can learn the importance of faith for prayer, truly believing that God will in his own time and in his own way respond to our cries for what is truly just and right. At the same time, Jesus teaches us the importance of perseverance in prayer, continuing to pray so that our hearts may be gradually opened to the way that God chooses to answer our prayers, which is not always something we can easily understand. Faith must ground our prayer and our perseverance, and taken together they must be essential qualities of our prayer if that prayer is to become a source of spiritual energy, peace and joy that we seek and that we see in the life of Jesus.
Today, we learn another yet another truth about such life-giving, life-transforming prayer. Today we learn that for our prayer to be truly fruitful prayer, like Jesus’ prayer, it must be grounded in a deep humility of heart and spirit. Only then will our prayer avoid becoming an empty mouthing of words, or even a kind of superstition, where we come to expect that our prayer, no matter how we pray, should require God to hear and answer our prayers in exactly the way we expect Him to answer us.
The parable of the publican and the pharisee teaches us that for prayer to be effective, truly fruitful, it must originate from a deep humility that recognizes a basic truth about ourselves, that in comparison to the One to whom we direct our prayers, we are almost nothing. Genuine humility enables us to see ourselves as we are, not only as sinners always in need of God’s mercy and purification, but also as creatures always in need of God’s creative love. Thus genuine humility is necessary to go deeper and recognize that in truth we are in our very being truly impoverished creatures in our very being, relatively nothing in comparison to the One to whom we pray, and absolutely and permanently dependent upon Him for all that we are, and all that we do. Jesus taught this not only in words but in the way he humbled his own humanity before the Father to whom He is eternally equal in His divinity as a divine person.
Modern science can give us a limited but helpful confirmation of this ground for humility on one level of our physical being. As we learn more and more about the incredible vastness of the physical universe, we see how little we are, materially speaking, in comparison with what appears to be an endless universe of material beings. We also hear this truth confirmed on a higher level in the beautiful Psalm 8, from so many centuries ago: “When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him,” (Ps 8:3)
However, as Christians we know that man is not just his body, and that his spiritual soul raises him in dignity above the physical universe, as that same Psalm teaches: “Yet thou hast made him little less than a god, and dost crown him with glory and honor. (8:5) The “god” referred to in this Psalm is akin to the angels and not to our Creator, for we are most definitely not just a “little less” than the true God. The Creator God is infinitely greater than any of His creatures, including his spiritual creatures, indeed infinitely greater than the whole of creation. Yet we also know from revelation that our Creator has made us like unto Himself, as His image and likeness in this marvelous created universe, as Genesis teaches. Thus, it is also true that in comparison to one soul, or one angel, the whole material universe is as nothing.
Nonetheless, it still remains true that in comparison to God, we ourselves are as nothing, ans there we have the mystery of man, greater in dignity than the material universe, yet infinitely less in being and dignity in comparison with our Creator. And for this reason, even beyond the problem of sin, humility is the natural condition of the creature, material or spiritual. Humility is the natural response to this truth about man as man, and once we recognize that our very being, life, freedom, and all our human acts, all the good we accomplish, that all of this is completely dependant upon God’s sustaining and creative love, there can be no proper human response than humility. That is true for us, and it was and is still true for Jesus insofar as he is truly a human being, possessing a human nature that enables and even requires Him to pray.
We learn from Scripture and Tradition that Adam’s Original Sin was a sin of pride, a refusal to be humble before his creator, a refusal to recognize his radical dependence upon His creator for his very being and all his activity, including his freedom and free acts. So too with us, every sin we commit involves, at least implicitly, a pride of the same kind, a lack of creaturely humility before our Creator. Thus, unlike Jesus, we actually have two grounds for being humble before our God, our sinfulness and the very poverty of our being in relation to God. That also explains why we require the virtue of humility to be capable of authentic prayer: we are creatures, and that we are creatures who are deeply flawed. We need to live that truth in our conversation with God.
Humility then is the virtue that underlies all truly effective human prayer, even that of Jesus. Jesus could pray only because he was truly a man. Prayer is the natural form of dialogue between man and God, the natural way in which man must approach God. Man’s greatest glory is that he is capable of this deeply personal relationship with His creator. Man’s glory is that he is truly is a person, a creature who images God by his intellect and will, powers that open man to a personal form of dialogue with other persons, and, above all.,with God.
Every person, then, can and must address God in conversation here and now because each of us is a true person, a person who is created for an eternal communion and spiritual conversation with our Creator. Prayer, then, is the natural mode of man’s communication with the One who is not only the source of our being and activity, but also the final end towards which our being, our life and our activity, that is, our being a person, ultimately finds its fulfillment and eternal happiness. Thinking of prayer as this creaturely dialogue with God explains best why Jesus prayed and why His prayer was the greatest ever uttered.
So, then, man must pray in order to be man, not just to have his sins forgiven, but in order to fulfill his personal being, for only through his relationship with God can this fulfillment take place since God is this fulfillment. So man must pray simply to be fully man, and to find human fulfillment and eternal happiness. But this fundamental relation, this communion and communication established by God’s initiative, in creating and redeeming man, requires man’s proper response which takes place in prayer and the service of His Creator. And this incredible, intimate relationship between Creator and creature, requires that our prayer reflect at all times the truth about our being and about this relationship, that man is utterly dependent upon God for everything, and this truth is manifested in man’s humility in his prayer.
So that is why the publican goes home justified, that is, forgiven by God and restored to God’s sonship, because the publican prayed with truth, that is, prayed while recognizing the truth about his standing before God, that he is a sinner in need of God’s mercy. The other man goes away unjustified, that is, with his prayer unanswered, because it is not really prayer he utters at all, but self-affirmation, self-justification, egoism and pride under the guise of prayer. Not only does this kind of “prayer” fail to recognize man’s sinfulness before the all-holy God and his need for mercy, but in a sense it fails to recognize that fundamental dependence of the creature simply as creature, and thus man’s need for humility that expresses thanksgiving to God for all things good and mercy from God for whatever is evil.
Humility, then, can be seen as the inner form of the created person’s prayer because it reflects the truth about his being. If man is to pray authentically, that is, if man is to enter into an authentic relationship with his Creator, it can only be on his knees, that is, in the form of humility. And this would have been as true for Adam before his sin as after, only after his sin he would have had an even more demanding reason for his humility. That is why Jesus prayed constantly and with the greatest humility, even though he was without any sin whatsoever. He was nonetheless true man, as a result of His incarnation, and thus he not only could pray but had to pray, for prayer is every man’s true form of living out his communion with God, and no one’s humanity was in deeper communion with God than that of Jesus.
If, then, we truly desire this kind of deep communion with God, we must have humility, not only the humility of Jesus based upon our standing as a creature, but the humility of the publican, based upon our sinfulness and constant need for the mercy of God. Truly authentic prayer for us then has its roots deep within the sacrament of confession, where we humble ourselves regularly before the Lord and seek his mercy, otherwise our prayer may end up like that of the Pharisee in the Gospel, and it may leave us unfulfilled rather than filled with God.