In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God—what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them. “But who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults” prays the Psalmist (Ps ).
Failure to recognize my guilt, the illusion of my innocence, does not justify me and does not save me, because I am culpable for the numbness of my conscience and my incapacity to recognize the evil in me for what it is. If God does not exist, perhaps I have to seek refuge in these lies, because there is no one who can forgive me; no one who is the true criterion. Yet my encounter with God awakens my conscience in such a way that it no longer aims at self-justification, and is no longer a mere reflection of me and those of my contemporaries who shape my thinking, but it becomes a capacity for listening to the Good itself.
Spe Salvi 33
Reflection – Well, this one packs a wallop! He’s really talking here about how prayer wakes us up, shakes us up, rakes all of our crap up, and finally takes us up into this bigger reality of God I’ve been talking about this past week or so on the blog.
Prayer is not just little me kneeling in a corner saying, ‘God, smite my enemies. God, make me win the lottery. God, thanks for making me one of the nice guys.’ A nice little self-enclosed dream world, where I talk to my invisible Friend. We might start like that, but as Pope Benedict says, we must learn to purify our desires and hopes.
Instead, as the real and living God comes into our prayer, we might find ourselves saying, ‘God, bless my enemies, and grant that I may die for them. God, make me a saint. God, thank you for being so merciful to a sinner like me, and please keep being merciful.’
And this whole business he gets into in the latter part of the passage, about prayer awakening our conscience – this too is very important. One of the reasons it can be so hard for us to truly reckon with our sinfulness, perhaps the deepest reason, is that we do not have a sufficient sense of who God is, the depths of his mercy, his compassion, his tender fatherly heart for his creatures.
Lacking that, either having little sense of God at all, or believing him to be a harsh punitive God, of course we will bury our sins below the level of our knowledge. Who can face his or her own pettiness, malice, laziness, omissions of charity and justice, lies, etc., if there is no loving God at the other end of our praying and living?
And of course we have, besides our own fleshly tendency to self-justification, the collaboration of the world, the spirit of the age, the tendency to go along with whatever social consensus says is right. And the devil gets in there, too, to cloud our minds and hearts and ensnare our wills in the bonds of sinful habit.
Well, prayer cuts through all this. Good prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” All the self-justification, the worldly ways of thinking, and the devil’s lies put to flight in one simple sentence, bequeathed to us by tradition as the Jesus Prayer or the prayer of the heart. It is meant to be prayed in a repetitive, rhythmic way, like a ‘mantra’, and effects this deep purification and awakening of our soul to the goodness and truth of God.
Religion, faith, spiritual life, is not a cozy comforter we wrap ourselves in against the ravages of the world. It is a splash of cold water on our drowsy faces, a clarion call to action in the face of the world’s and our own pain, a surgeon’s knife cutting us so as to heal us, a sharp cleansing agent that scrubs and scours and washes out all in us that is not true, good, and beautiful.
And this is the great source of hope and even joy in our lives – God does all this in us, and does it in us as we turn to Him in simple prayer. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.