Praying to Oneself

Do you ever find yourself praying to yourself, like the pharisee in today’s parable (Luke 18.9–14)? Luke is very hard on the pharisee. Most pharisees were good people, and, far from being hypocrites, were devoted to the Law, charitable and upstanding members of society. Unfortunately, being ‘good’ can sometimes get in the way of being truly open to God; and that is exactly what happens with the pharisee in today’s gospel. Instead of praying to God, he addresses himself; and rather than acknowledging his sinfulness, he gives thanks for his virtues. The tax-collector, by contrast, knows he is a sinner through and through and simply asks for mercy.

Being honest about oneself does lead to a great simplification in prayer. There is nothing to say except, Lord, have mercy on me a sinner. The pharisee, alas, has obviously read too many books about self-worth and that has led him onto dangerous ground, making comparisons between himself and others (to their detriment). Clearly, being honest about oneself shouldn’t mean denying the gifts God has given, but it should make us realise that they are indeed gifts, not something we have earned or have of ourself.

We can all take something away from today’s reading, but I guarantee it won’t be comfortable.

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The Day Hell Was Made

According to some medieval calendars, this is the day on which hell was made. For many waking up to further devastation in the U.K. and the U.S.A., there is a certain irony in that. What could be more hellish than to be wading through sewage in one’s own home, or shivering without power through an ice storm? Perhaps our friends in Syria or the Central African Republic might have their own views on that, but we must stick with what we know and experience at first hand, the effects of the weather and the misery many are experiencing right now.

Whatever hell may be theologically, practically speaking it is anything and everything we find exceptionally hard and disagreeable, something that inflicts extreme pain. Sometimes the pain comes from outside; sometimes it comes from within; but the one constant is that it seems to have no redeeming feature. It is lonely, bleak and hopeless. To pretend otherwise is dangerous, because it means that our prayer becomes infected with a fundamental dishonesty. Certainly, we can and should ask for the grace to see as God sees; but if for the moment we are blind and deaf to everything except the pain we experience, then that is what we must take to the Lord. He will not turn us away because we are raging. In fact, I rather think he will embrace us as we ourselves might embrace a child in a tantrum. Today, as we pray for those suffering from the effects of the weather or any other disaster, let us be simple and direct in our prayer. Spare your people, Lord; we ask nothing less.

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