He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." -Luke 18:9-14
About This Week's Prompts for Personal Meditation
The act of prayer shows me who I am when I enter the holy place. Jesus offers both comfort and a warning - hope for the soul's entanglement in habitual sin and a click of conscience in moments of self-satisfaction.
"Pride makes us artificial, humility makes us real" says Merton in an essay which was probably a thinly disguised argument with himself (meditation one). A holy teacher urges the new pilgrim to embrace poverty of spirit and simplicity of heart as he begins his life of prayer (meditation two). And in a Sufi story reminiscent of Dives and Lazarus as well as the Pharisee and the Publican, the angel carrying a compulsive gambler to heaven discloses the virtue of goodness over godliness.
Have a good meditation! -Suzanne, a miserable sinner
Meditation One (introit) dares to be ordinary
Asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks. The cornerstone of all asceticism is humility, and Christian humility is first of all a matter of supernatural common sense. It teaches us to take ourselves as we are, instead of pretending (as pride would have us imagine) that we are something better than we are. If we really know ourselves we quietly take our proper place in the order designed by God. And so supernatural humility adds much to our human dignity by integrating us in the society of other men and placing us in our right relation to them and to God. Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real. …
It is supreme humility to see that ordinary life, embraced with perfect faith, can be more saintly and more supernatural than a spectacular ascetical career. Such humility dares to be ordinary, and that is something beyond the reach of spiritual pride. Pride always longs to be unusual. Humility not so. Humility finds all its peace in hope, knowing that Christ must come again to elevate and transfigure ordinary things and fill them with His glory. -Thomas Merton 1915-1968 No Man Is An Island
… He opened the book [The Philokalia], found the instruction by St. Simeon the New Theologian, and read: "Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, i.e., your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.' Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently." -The Way of the Pilgrim trans. R.M.French
Boastful am I, and hard of heart, all in vain and for nothing. Condemn me not with the Pharisee, but rather grant unto me the humility of the Publican, O only merciful and just Judge, and number me with him.
-St. Andrew of Crete 8th century Great Canon, Ode 4
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Have mercy on me, a miserable sinner.
-variation on the Jesus Prayer
When I say, “have mercy on me, a sinner,” I unite myself with all human beings from the beginning of the world who have experienced separation from God. I realize that, as human beings, we are all separated from God, from the source of our being. We are wandering in a world of shadows, mistaking the outward appearance of people and things for the reality. But at all times something is pressing us to reach out beyond the shadows, to face the reality, the truth. The inner meaning of our lives, and so to find God… the mystery which enfolds us.
That’s what we pray for when we pray for mercy. We could simply say, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” as this man does today. We could say, “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” But whatever we say, we need to humble ourselves before God. We don’t need to exalt ourselves! The marvelous thing is that as soon as we stand humbly before God––as before the emperor, as before a mother hen––God exalts us.
-Cyprian Consiglio Homilies and Conferences, March 28, 2014
Pharisee and Publican, Unknown Potter, Dutch, Plaque with view inside Gothic church, 1662
If faithful souls be alike glorified As angels, then my father's soul doth see, And adds this even to full felicity, That valiantly I hell's wide mouth o'er stride. But if our minds to these souls be descried By circumstances, and by signs that be Apparent in us not immediately, How shall my mind's white truth by them be tried? They see idolatrous lovers weep and mourn, And stile blasphemous conjurers to call On Jesu's name, and Pharisaical Dissemblers feign devotion. Then turn, O pensive soul, to God, for He knows best Thy grief, for He put it into my breast.
-John Donne Holy Sonnet viii
The Pharisee and the Publican, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, engraving, Bibel in Beldern, 1851-60
Meditation Two (insight) Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me Then the old man crossed himself and spoke. "Thank God, my dear brother, for having revealed to you this unappeasable desire for unceasing interior prayer. Recognize in it the call of God, and calm yourself. Rest assured that what has hitherto been accomplished in you is the testing of the harmony of your own will with the voice of God. It has been granted to you to understand that the heavenly light of unceasing interior prayer is attained neither by the wisdom of this world, nor by the mere outward desire for knowledge, but that on the contrary it is found in poverty of spirit and in active experience in simplicity of heart. ..." -The Way of a Pilgrim trans. R.M.French
Meditation Three (integration) the saint and the sinner
There was once a dervish devotee who believed that it was his task to reproach those who did evil things and to enjoin upon them spiritual thoughts, so that they might find the right path. [The dervish singled out a compulsive gambler, and each day the dervish placed a stone near the entrance of the house, to remind the gambler of his sin. The devotee enjoyed the pleasure of his 'Godliness' in recording the sins of his neighbor. This went on for twenty years.
Each day the gambler thought,] 'Would that I understand goodness! How that saintly man works for my redemption! Would that I could repent, let alone become like him, for he is sure of a place among the elect when the time of requital arrives!'
And so it happened that, through a natural catastrophe, both men died at the same time. An angel came to take the soul of the gambler, and said to him gently, 'You are to come with me to paradise.'
[The gambler protested, saying that the angel must have mixed up his instructions, for he learned that the devotee is destined for roasting on the fiery pit in hell.]
'Not so,' said the angel, 'as I shall explain to you. It is thuswise: the devotee has been indulging himself for twenty years with feelings of superiority and merit. Now it is his turn to redress the balance. He really put those stones on that pile for himself, not for you. … You are to be rewarded because, every time you passed the dervish, you thought first of goodness and secondly of the dervish. It is goodness, not man, which is rewarding you for your fidelity.'
-Idries Shah 1924-1996 Wisdom of the Idiots
The Pharisee and Publican at prayer, Unknown French Master, c.1200
The Last Word
Pride is the mask we make of our faults. -Jewish Proverb
“Pray without ceasing” (1Thessalonians 5:17). Devout people wondered what Paul meant. And when I fell in love with God, I, too, wanted to pray continually.
Fortunately, my first teacher of prayer was a Roman Catholic nun adept at Jesus Prayer. She taught me to breathe in the words Lord Jesus Christ, son of God. And breathe out have mercy on me, a sinner. Long breaths might take on an expanded variation: Lord Jesus Christ Son of the Living God on the in-breath and have mercy on me a miserable sinner on the out-breath. Breathe in the divine and breathe out that which is not yet divine. She taught me to pace my footsteps with the Jesus prayer: right foot - Jesus, left foot - Mercy. And so I walked, Jesus, Mercy, Jesus, Mercy, Jesus, Mercy.
The prayer deepens, she told me, so that the very heart beats JesusMercyJesusMercy. Eventually the prayer continues while you sleep. And thus you pray continually, she said.
Some spiritual practices may involve complicated theologies, rules, dangers, levels of experience. All take for granted a life of service to others, liturgy, community, fasting, charity, almsgiving, repentance, confession, thanksgiving, growing in love. But the Jesus Prayer as an ancient practice creates an atmosphere of humility and longing for God. The prayer draws upon the invocation of the name of Jesus - as old as the church - and reminiscent of God's Presence dwelling in the Name of the Holy One as practiced in our Hebrew roots. The prayer invokes deification, of becoming God in the way Ireneaus, Athanasius and other early theologians describe: God became man in order that man might become God. The prayer draws from the theology of kenosis, of self-emptying, just as Jesus emptied himself (Philippians 2:6-11).
You hear overtones of two steady companions as you pray. Blind Bartimaeus begging from the roadside shouts again and again, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus calls him, and throwing off his cloak the beggar makes his way to Jesus and is healed. The other voice is our dear publican who enters the temple to pray, head bowed in misery, beating his breast and murmuring, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
You don't have to be a great sinner to love this prayer. Repentance simply means change. I'm willing to change, throw off my cloak, humble myself to see through the chimera my ego makes to obscure my core being.
I no longer practice the Jesus Prayer, but it comes back spontaneously in times of stress - in physical pain, during white-knuckle turbulence on airplanes. I'm happy for the Gospel text this week, bringing me back to this old way of loving God.