Back in the ‘80s both Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger were quite suspicious of anything to do with Eastern spirituality. At one point each one of them made a statement that was inadvertently very offensive to Buddhists. When John Paul found out about it, he rectified it partially by writing Fides et Ratio, in some way acknowledging that he had learned something along the way. (It was a subtle point about soteriology that most people wouldn’t have understood anyway. William Johnson writes about this in Arise My Love.) I am not sure if Cardinal Ratzinger ever did get the chance to rectify his statement, but it seems it might have been more a question of a mistranslation. (Anyway, our friend the Chinese Buddhist monk Heng Sure wound up having a one-on-one conversation with him, and at least Heng Sure came away satisfied.) But one of the things that they were warning Western Christians about, especially Cardinal Ratzinger in his warnings about Eastern style meditation, was very valid, though it is not clear that Buddhists or other meditators were actually guilty of it—and it’s something that’s right here in today’s Gospel (Lk 18:9-14). ‘The Pharisee… trusted in himself...’ and he was ‘standing by himself’, one translation has it that he was praying to himself! Even worse than, or at least just as bad as, this Pharisee being judgmental and arrogant, is the fact that he was trusting in himself, standing by himself, praying to himself. How many times does Jesus give the piece of advice that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted in one form or another? This is absolutely central to Jesus’ Way, and here he also applies it to prayer: those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Prayer is not an exaltation of ourselves; it is humbly standing before God, as Master Romuald says, either as one stands before an emperor or as a chick stands before mother hen, but either way in a very humble position.
John Main taught that the inner journey especially in our day and age can tap into the incredible hunger that we have for self-analysis, and “the self-preoccupation that often masquerades as spirituality.” Ouch! There is a danger that the interior journey can become a getting caught in the trap of our own subjective experience, instead of being “relieved of the bondage of self,” as the Twelve Steps would say. What we are seeking through our journey to the depths of the being is the reign of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit that is our source. We are going through ourselves to get beyond ourselves. Anthony Bloom wrote in his marvelous little book Beginning to Pray that it is not just a journey into my own inwardness, “it is a journey through my own self, in order to emerge from the deepest level of self into the place where [God] is, the point at which God and I meet.” We heard from the end of the Book of Exodus the other day about the Mercy Seat. Maybe that point could be called the “Inner Mercy Seat.”
And maybe that’s why prayer and the call for mercy are so often tied together. Consider also the Jesus Prayer, for instance—“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me” which comes from this very gospel story. Asking for mercy is not always asking for forgiveness; sometimes it’s simply asking for help, sometimes it’s acknowledging that there is something greater than me in the Universe and I need that Something who is actually a Someone; maybe it’s a desperate cry to be relieved of the bondage of self in whose tendrils I often find myself tangled. Even to say “I am a sinner” can simply sometimes mean, “I’m in need.”
This is central to the teaching in John Cassian’s famous Chapter 10 on prayer. Abba Isaac gives a recommendation of a prayer phrase, a phrase that he says would be sufficient for anyone in any circumstance who wants to have continuous recollection of God. And the prayer he chose of course was, “O God come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.” And he says that the reason he chose that particular formula out of all of scripture is because these words contain not only “an invocation of God in the face of any crisis,” and “the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand” but also “the humility of a devout confession” and “a consciousness of one’s own frailty.” That is what we pray for when we pray for mercy. Abba Isaac says:
Perhaps wandering thoughts surge about my soul like boiling water, and I cannot control them, nor can I offer prayer without its being interrupted by silly images. I feel so dry that I am incapable of spiritual feelings, and many sighs and groans cannot save me from dreariness. I must say, “O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me.”
I was quite interested to find out that Fr. Bede Griffiths, with all his sophisticated theology and his immersion into Eastern mysticism, used the Jesus Prayer for the last 40 years of his life. Sr. Mary Louise from Ananda Ashram across the road from Shantivanam attended him at his bedside as he lay dying, too weak to even speak; and she recounted how she would say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me…” and then she would wait, and Fr. Bede would strike his breast and say, “…a sinner.” I wondered how he understood those words, he who did not put a lot of emphasis on sin in his teaching and writing. Here’s what he wrote in a little essay called “How I Pray”:
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.