Sometimes I want to say things I’ve already said. My parishioners have apparently learned to put up with this as my children did long ago. The subject of this posting came up recently in a sermon (probably not for the first time – but who can remember?). It is not all that is to be said about prayer – but it should be said sometime and is said too infrequently. If you are struggling with your prayer-rule don’t give up. But if failure is keeping you from prayer (or worse, from Church) then rush to pray – the doors of heaven are open – and now you can pray like the Publican (who “went down to his house justified”). The text of this post first ran in December of 2006.
Sometime back someone said to me, “Whenever I’ve sinned I never feel like praying. I feel unworthy and I just can’t pray.”
The statement sounded correct – I’ve had the same feeling often enough. But I kept thinking about it until the question came to me, “What am I waiting to feel before I pray?”
In the case at hand, I would suppose one would be waiting not to feel like such a sinner. And then I understood.
There is the story in Scripture of two men who went to pray, one a Pharisee and one a Publican (bad tax-collector for Rome) (Luke 18:10-14). We are told that the Pharisee prayed easily, lifting his eyes to heaven, and thanking God that “he was not like other men.”
The publican did not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.
What struck me on reflection, however, was the puzzle of not wanting to pray when I feel guilty of sin. Having sinned, I do not wish to pray, I do not feel worthy of prayer. What am I waiting on?
I think, upon reflection, I’m waiting until I feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so I can pray, without realizing that such prayer is almost useless. Indeed, strangely, I pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” with greater ease when I feel like a righteous man than when I feel like a sinner.
And this is part of the disease of religion – for make no mistake – religion is frequently a disease.
Relgious feelings (the Pharisees were masters of them) are deceptive in the extreme. I think I feel like praying, I am in fact feeling “pious.” And it’s a deep tragedy. I am not ready to pray – I’m eaten up with myself as a pious man.
When you feel like a Publican, then you can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell me, “Father, I can’t serve in the altar today, I don’t feel worthy.” No doubt. But you’re in much greater danger when you do feel worthy.
Come in and approach God’s altar knowing you are not worthy and you will find grace and forgiveness.
None of this is to say don’t go to confession. But it’s good for us to say, sometimes, “Father, forgive me, I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere.
To see the truth of ourselves is a very hard thing. And to love God precisely in the truth of ourselves is harder still. But this He wants from us. Pray like a publican. There are so many more times available for prayer if you do. And while you’re there, pray for those who are praying like a pharisee. May God free us from delusion.