The Pharisee and the tax collector are presented to the worshipping community in this Sunday’s Gospel as models of prayer: the one to be shunned; the other to be emulated. The Pharisee’s proud invocations are clearly to be avoided. He brags of his strengths and belittles his neighbor. On the other hand, the tax collector’s modest appeal is commended as a notable model of invocation: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Here, there is no boasting of proud accomplishments; there are no belabored supplications.
The sincerity and simplicity of the tax collector’s terse prayer recall an equally frank prayer that concisely exalts God over self. George MacDonald (1824 – 1905) was a Scottish Congregational minister and writer. He was a mentor of fellow writer Lewis Carroll. Author C. S. Lewis wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his “master.” Even Mark Twain became his friend and was influenced by him. A notable quote from the Rev. MacDonald sheds much light on the nature of prayer. “O God!” I cried, and that was all. But what then? The prayers of the entire universe are no more than an expansion of that one cry. It is not what God can give us, but God that we want.”
Our Catholic saints offer similar insights. St. John Vianney relates his meeting with an elderly man who sat in church for lengthy periods before the tabernacle. The elderly parishioner explained: “I just look at him and he just looks at me.” “God alone suffices,” observed the great St. Teresa. St. Teresa of Calcutta offers a similar thought: “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer.” St. Gregory of Nysa offers this plain counsel: “Thanks to prayer, we can be with God.” And another early thinker, St. John Chrysostom, instructs simply, “Prayer is the light of the soul.” St. Peter Julian Eymard encourages wisely: “Go directly to Jesus without too much fuss.” And finally St. Jane Frances de Chantal teaches clearly, “There is no danger if our prayer is without words or reflection because the good success of prayer depends neither on words nor on study. It depends upon the simple raising of our minds to God, and the more simple and stripped of feeling it is, the surer it is.”
“Prayer is the lifting of the mind and heart to God,” explains the basic catechism. Authentic prayer arises from the inner person. Of course, the devout believer has prayer books and holy cards and rosary beads and the liturgy of the hours as a guide and incentive to prayer. But these sources of inspiration must not be mistaken for the measure of prayer itself. Often genuine prayer is achieved after these pious devotions have been completed. Vocal prayer should lead to mental prayer and then happily to an enjoyment of the spiritual presence of God himself. “Be still and know that I am God!” insists Psalm XLVI.
Favored prayers can be the means to union with God. But prayer itself is the actual realization of that union with God. After a certain while, most believers close their prayer books and put away their rosaries meaning to conclude their prayer time. But it is precisely at the end of their devotions that they are truly beginning to pray. Their pieties have placed them in the presence of God. Relishing that presence is truly authentic prayer. As St. Francis of Assisi advised his brothers, “Prayer is true rest.” Prayer is resting in God, relishing God, and, as the Reverend MacDonald observed above, wanting God.
While visiting relatives in Kentucky this past summer, I once again visited the Trappist Abbey at Gethsemane, not far from Louisville. The 40 or so monks were gathering to chant the liturgical hour of sext at midday as I arrived. Their recitation of the psalms, in English, was paced and deliberate. Nobody was going anywhere. The nuns at Mt. St. Mary Abbey in Wrentham convey the same sense of a focused and attentive prayer time. Few, if any, readers of the Quiet Corner reside in monasteries. Quiet time is at a premium in the modern world for laity, religious and clergy. Yet clearly, it is awareness and alertness to the immediate presence of God that the devout follower wants and needs. Again, “Be still and know that I am God!”