The Prerequisite to Prayer

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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Jesus continues to teach us about prayer in this week’s readings.  This week, we are taught that humility is an essential element in prayer.  From Sirach we are told that “the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds” (Sir 35:21), and in our psalm we proclaim that “The Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Ps 34).  

The gospel (Lk 18:-14) offers a parable about two people who go to the temple area to pray. One, a proud and haughty Pharisee, offers God thanksgiving that he “is not like the rest of humanity.” The Pharisees, we must remember, were a very observant sect of Judaism, following strictly the laws of Moses. Indeed, the Pharisee in the parable followed them so well he felt he had nothing to ask forgiveness for.
By contrast, we have the tax collector. Tax collectors are frequently seen in the gospels as examples of sinful people, a despised class. A tax collector earned his living by collecting taxes from the Jewish people for the Roman government; his pay was whatever additional money he could squeeze out of the people he collected from. The tax collector was seen as a criminal, a thief, and a traitor to his people. And in this parable, he also provides for us the model of our prayer. Unlike the Pharisee, who tells God how good he already is, the tax collector stands far off, eyes downcast, beating his breast and praying, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
This simple prayer of the tax collector has come down to us today as The Jesus Prayer.  Its most common form is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The only change made to the prayer from the gospel reading is to add the name of Christ, the one to whom we pray for mercy.
This prayer has been called the perfect prayer, and it is easy to see why.  It is short, and therefore easy to memorize, and repeat often.  It is an effective “arrow prayer” (a quick, short sentence one can pray in a time of need), as well as a wonderful tool for contemplation.  Despite its brevity, it contains within its few words all the essential elements of prayer.
It begins by addressing the object of our prayer, Jesus Christ, and identifying Him rightly as the Son of God. Just as importantly it identifies the subject of our prayer, that is ourselves, correctly as sinners. Finally, it asks for the one thing that a poor sinner truly needs from God – mercy.  It is all there.
What makes the prayer of the tax collector so much more effective than the prayer of the Pharisee? The tax collector, lowly as he was, had one thing that the Pharisee lacked, which ended up being the most important thing of all – humility. In fact, our Church teaches that if we don’t have the virtue of humility, we cannot truly pray at all.  
Just look up “humility” in the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Humility is always mentioned in conjunction to prayer. The Catechism calls humility “the foundation of prayer” (CCC 2559).  Humility brings us back into communion with God and one another, enabling us to ask for forgiveness, which is a “prerequisite for both the Eucharistic liturgy and personal prayer” (CCC 2631). Finally, when talking about contemplative prayer, that prayer which God conforms man to His likeness, the Catechism says it can “only be accepted in humility” (CCC 2713).
Why would this be? Humility is the virtue by which we understand ourselves as we truly are before God. Before God, all souls are lowly.  When we compare ourselves to other human beings, we are always tempted to be like the Pharisee in the parable. We are tempted to think, I’m so much better than everyone else, or At least I’m not as bad as that person. But when we see ourselves in light of God, we realize how silly this way of thinking is. What does it matter if I am better or worse than anyone else? It’s not my job to judge other people. It’s not even my job to judge myself! Only God will judge us, and in light of His perfect goodness, who could withstand His judgment? No one stands before God Almighty and thinks, I’m pretty good compared to Him!  We are all lowly before God. Humility allows us to recognize that.
Humility allows us to look critically into our hearts and identify our failings. Humility allows us to then lift our sins up to God and ask Him to remove their burden from us. Humility allows us to ask for forgiveness, for without humility we would not know we need forgiving.
As I stated last week, the purpose of prayer is not to change the way God thinks about us, but to change us to become more like God. And this transformation, this divinization, requires humility. If we are to be formed more perfectly into His image, we must be soft and malleable, like clay or the soft wax of a seal, ready to bear God’s impression.  
St. John Chrysostum had this to say about the Jesus Prayer.

A soul that forces itself to pray the Prayer of Jesus can find anything by this prayer, both good and evil. First it can see evil in the recesses of its own heart, and afterwards good. This prayer can stir the snake to action, and this prayer can lay it low. This prayer can expose the sin that is living in us, and this prayer can eradicate it. This prayer can stir up in the heart all the power of the enemy, and this prayer can conquer it and gradually root it out. The name of the Lord Jesus Christ, as it descends into the depths of the heart, will subdue the snake which controls its ranges, and will save and quicken the soul. Continue constantly in the name of the Lord Jesus that the heart may swallow the Lord and the Lord the heart, and that these two may be one. However, this is not accomplished in a single day, nor in two days, but requires many years and much time. Much time and labor are needed in order to expel the enemy and instate Christ (Letter to Monks, PG 60).

So I encourage you to make the tax collector’s prayer your own. Commit the Jesus Prayer to heart. Repeat it often throughout the day. Eastern Christians make a litany of this prayer, the way we do of the Hail Mary prayer in the West, repeating it on every knot or bead of their prayer ropes.  You can repeat this prayer several times in your mind and on your lips as an addition to your morning or evening prayer routine. Or you can use the prayer at various times throughout the day, in times of need or simply while engaging in semi-automatic tasks such as walking to class, driving, washing dishes, or folding laundry. Make this prayer part of the rhythm of your mind. Plant this prayer in your heart and it will bear great fruit in your soul.