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)
For two weeks now we have heard 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.
So what are the most important lessons 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 in prayer; sometimes they saw him go off alone to pray, but they also saw that even in the midst of His extremely hectic daily ministry of the Gospel, Jesus would take time to pray. They wanted to learn how to pray as He did, for they witnessed how prayer truly energized Him for His exhausting ministry to souls, and they also saw how His prayer filled Him with a deep peace and joy that they themselves had not yet experienced in their own lives. What, then, was the attitude, source and method of His prayer?
In last week’s Gospel, Jesus taught us about prayer in the parable of the woman who seeks justice from a dishonest judge. There we learn the importance for his disciples to have faith as the source and ground of prayer, truly believing that God will in his own time and in his own way respond to our petitions for what is truly just and right. At the same time, Jesus teaches us the importance of perseverance in our prayer, that we must continue to pray so that our hearts may be gradually opened to the way in which God chooses to answer our prayers, which is not always something we can easily understand. So faith must ground our prayer and motivate our perseverance. 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 yet another truth about such life-giving, life-transforming prayer. Today we learn that for our prayer to be truly fruitful prayer, to be like Jesus’ fruitful prayer, it must also 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 presumption, where we come to expect that our prayer, no matter how we pray, will somehow require God to hear and answer our prayers in exactly the way that we expect Him to answer us.
The parable of the publican and the pharisee today teaches us that for prayer to be effective, that is, to be truly fruitful, it must originate from and be grounded in a deep humility that recognizes a basic truth about ourselves. We must clearly recognize that in comparison to the One to whom we direct our prayers, we are next to nothing. Genuine humility enables us to see ourselves as we truly are; we are not only sinners who are always in need of God’s mercy and purification, but we are also mere creatures always in need of God’s creative love.
Genuine humility thus enables us to go deeper into our souls and recognize the truth that we are in our very being deeply impoverished creatures, not simply because of our sins, but in our very being. We are relatively nothing in comparison to the One to whom we pray, and thus we absolutely and permanently depend upon God for all that we are, and all that we do. Jesus taught this great truth not only in His words but also in the way He humbled Himself in his own humanity before the Father to whom He is eternally equal in His divinity since He is one of the three divine persons who are the one undivided God.
Modern science can give us a limited but helpful confirmation of this firm ground for humility on the level of our physical being. As we learn more and more about the incredible vastness of the physical universe, we see how infinitesimally little we are in terms of our material being in comparison with what appears to be an endless universe of material beings. We also find this same truth confirmed on a higher level in the beautiful Psalm 8, composed 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 also know that man is not just his body, and that his spiritual soul raises him in dignity above this great physical universe, as that same Psalm 8 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 can only refer to the angels and not to our Creator, for we are most definitely not just a “little less” than the true God. God our Creator is infinitely greater than any of His creatures, including his spiritual creatures, and indeed infinitely greater than the whole of His creation. Yet we also know from revelation that our Creator has made us like unto Himself, as His true image and likeness placed in this marvelous created universe, as Genesis teaches us. For this reason alone, it is also true that in comparison to one human soul, or to one angel, the whole material universe is as nothing.
Nonetheless, it still remains true that in comparison to God, in ourselves we are as nothing, and there we discover the true mystery of man; man as greater in dignity than the material universe, yet man as infinitely less in being and dignity in comparison with our Creator. And for this reason, humility is required not only or even mainly because of our wretched condition caused by sin, but humility is simply the proper disposition of the creature as creature, whether purely material, or a union of matter and spirit, or simply a spiritual being as are the angels. Thus humility is the fitting or proper attitude and disposition required by this truth about man simply as man. And once we recognize that our very being, our life, our freedom, and all our human acts, all the good we accomplish, that all of this is completely dependent upon God’s sustaining and creative love, there can be no proper human response other than humility. That is true for us, and it was and still is true even for Jesus insofar as he is truly a human being, possessing a human nature that enables and even requires Him to pray.
In addition, 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 for all his activity, for his freedom and for all his good acts. So too with us, every sin we commit involves, at least implicitly, a deep seated pride of the same kind, a lack of required creaturely humility before our Creator. Thus, unlike Jesus, Scripture teaches us that we actually have two grounds for being humble before our God, our sinfulness, certainly, but also the very poverty of our being in relation to God. That poverty of being ultimately explains why we require the virtue of humility in order to be capable of authentic prayer. First and above all simply because we are creatures, and only second we are creatures who are deeply flawed by sin. We need to live these two truths in our conversation with God.
Humility, then, is the virtue that underlies all truly effective human prayer, even the prayer of Jesus. Jesus could pray only because he was also truly a man. Prayer is the natural form of dialogue between man the creature and God the Creator, the natural and appropriate way in which man must approach God. Man’s greatest glory is found in the fact that he is capable of a deeply personal relationship with his Creator. Man’s glory is is grounded on the fact 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, thus, 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 whole being as 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, Jesus teaches us that man must pray in order to be fully 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. Thus man must pray simply to be fully and truly 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 incredibly 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 prayer by his humility.
In the end, that is why the publican goes home justified, that is, forgiven by God and restored to God’s friendship, for only the publican prayed with truth, that is, prayed while recognizing the truth about his standing before God, that he is a poor 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, might 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 well as after his sin, 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 a true man, as a result of His Incarnation, and thus He not only could pray but truly 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 begin from 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, will have another root 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.