Friday, October 05, 2007

I'm Too Tired to Pray (the Way I Want)

Let me return briefly to the general theme I outlined two weeks ago--prayer and work.

The last few weeks have been EXTREMELY busy for me--in addition to a great deal of traveling, I've had to submit two conference proposals (one of which, on the Jesus Prayer for a group composed primarily of Evangelical Christian psychologists, social workers and pastoral, was accepted earlier this week). At the beginning of this week, I was in Cleavland, OH an observer at the Assembly for the Diocese of the Mid-West (OCA). And, oh yeah, my mother arrived yesterday for a visit ("Hi Mom!").

So needless to say, I have not been very faithful in my blogging.

And also, and not expectedly, I have often found myself saying this week, "I'm too tired to pray." This isn't a happy experience for me and in fact I feel quite bad when I am so tired that even television is a bit of an intellectual stretch for me.

But over the years as I've thought about my own pray life, to say nothing of finding myself at least partially responsible for the pray life of other people, I come to realize that the experience of being too tired to pray is real an invitation to deepen my own spiritual life.

Strictly speaking "I'm too tired to pray" is a comparative statement. "I'm too tired to pray"... "the way I did yesterday," or... "to pray the way I want to," or ... "to pray the way I should" (or at any rate "think I should"). In one way or another my being too tired to pray calls into question my relationship with my own pray life. It also calls into question the decision I make about how I spent my day.

Let's look at each in turn.

Christians really do need to have a daily rule of prayer or a rule of life (are the priests listening!). Without one I am simply adrift in my day. Without a firm grounding in daily prayer I am subject to all sorts of temptations. While eventually we all stumble, without the habit of daily prayer, my stumbling to temptation will eventually undermine not only my spiritual life, but my work life, my family life and if I don't get back on track in time, my salvation.

So a daily rule of prayer is a powerful part of our spiritual lives. But it can also be in its own way a great temptation. Basically once I fulfill my rule of prayer I can allow myself to think that I've done my duty to God, or worse, that I really have accomplished something that gives me bragging rights in the presence of God and my neighbors.

But of course, I don't have bragging rights at all do I?

When I find myself too tried to pray I have the opportunity to humbly accept my limitations and to remember that prayer is never really my work. Prayer is a gift, a grace that God grants me. If this or that day finds me too tired to pray, well, so be it.

The problem to keep my eyes open for is when too tired to pray becomes too busy to pray. When that happens I have slipped rather far from the Gospel life. This temptation is an especially common, and deadly, one for clergy. It is very easy for clergy to reduce our prayer life to the "objective" side of prayer: the Liturgy, the sacraments, etc.

Even if I celebrate the Liturgy, for example, with attention and devotion this is different from actually praying the Liturgy. Having spoken to a number of priests and deacons I have come to appreciate how difficult it is for many of us to actually pray at Liturgy.

Whether we say the Jesus Prayer, or turn to the Psalms, or practice some form of lectio divina, Christians must be men and women of regular, daily prayer. And this prayer must be a deep as God's grace and the circumstance of our life allow. It can be difficult sometimes, but we need to offer to God at least some small part of our day, even if it is nothing more than the desire to pray.

Prayer regulars discipline, commitment, but above all humility. When I fail to pray as I want or as I ought, I think it is good to take this an opportunity to reflect on not simply my "spiritual life," but the whole of my life. When I do this, I might discover some assumption I am making about my life, about how I use my time, and well, who knows what else, that might be useful for me as I strive to remain faithful to Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Third Sunday of Luke (7:11-16 )

Luke 7:11-16
11 Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. 12 And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, "Do not weep." 14 Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise." 15 So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. 16 Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen up among us"; and, "God has visited His people."

In orthodox (and needless to say, Orthodox) Christianity, Christ comes not simply to save something called the "soul," but that rather much more mysterious reality called the person.

We need to step back for a moment and reflect on our experience, personal and shared, to see why it is that we are right in saying that the human person, created as we are in the image and likeness of the Triune God, is mysterious and (in light of this mystery) what it means to be saved.

Think about it a moment: Each of us, is unique and irrepeatable. We share, to state it paradoxically, the quality of being unique. And yet, we somehow recognize each other as human and even are able to experience moments of empathy in which we see ourselves in one another.

Seeing ourselves in each other seems to happen most frequently in those moments of low ebb, not simply in darkness of tragedy and immense suffering to be sure, but certainly there is something about the experience of being in need that makes it possible for us to transcend our own uniqueness and come to a sense of sameness between my neighbor and myself. Indeed, it is often in moments of great need that I come to see my neighbor as really and truly my neighbor.

Ideally all this happens in a way that both preserves, and even sharpens, our uniqueness while making manifest, sometimes unbearably so, our sameness. We can like Christ in the Gospel reading to become "like a sponge for [our neighbors] tears" (St Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Tatian's Diatessaron). But for this to happen, we need, and again like Christ, possess our selves.

Tragically though because of sin for most of us most of the time while the suffering of others evokes from us a sense of empathy, this empathy quickly overwhelms us.

Like Christ I want to speak a word, to reach out a hand, to in some small way "set free [my neighbor's] death-fraught flesh from the bonds of death." I want like Chirst, to have "mercy upon the woman, . . . that her tears might be stopped, . . . [and see] see the cause of her weeping . . . undone" (St Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 36). But because I am a sinner, I can't. Because my communion with God is impaired, my communion with my neighbor is also wounded and I am therefore that much less than myself.

For this reason the face of human suffering, and the renewed and deepened communion that it offers, I fail. And I don't simply fail once, but again and again. So often the face of human suffering with its invitation to experience our common humanity overwhelms me. Because of sin, our common humanity, our communion with God and one another has become terrible and in the face of the uniqueness of her suffering I drown in the tears of the widow who has lost her only son.

In my weakness rather than imitating Christ in the scene, I find myself (to borrow St Cyril's words again) in the role of the dead man's "many friends who were conducting him to his tomb." My concerned is well-intentioned, but in the final analysis it is only able to lower my friend into his tomb.

Respect for each person's uniqueness, empathy for our shared humanity, are good things. But these very basic, epistemological and psychological truths must be transformed by the grace of Christ into "the fruit of the Spirit . . . love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, `gentleness, self-control" (Gal 5.22-23). It is only through our cultivating the fruit of the Spirit that we are able to put to death in us "the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like" (vv. 19-21).

These works of the flesh need to be healed since it is these that are the cause of my lost resolve in the face of human suffering. The works for flesh blind me to the mystery of the human person since each degrades the person and changes my stance toward him or her from an end into a means. Captured by the works of the flesh, standing unrepentant in my sins before the Triune God in Whose image and likeness I and you have been created, I do prefer to think that God saves souls but not that He saves persons.

Why do I prefer to think God saves souls and not persons?

There is a cleanness, a simplicity to the idea of a soul. This simplicity does not require from me an acceptance of a life of communion with other human persons in their embodied uniqueness.

The salvation of the person, the person in all his or her uniqueness however is an invitation to live a life of respectful communion. This is a challenging to me that a focus on the ethereal, timeless, disembodied soul never really quite makes.

For acknowledge and conform myself to the reality that Christ comes to save the person, that He comes to save me and you, in our full humanity, means that I must give up my gnostic vision of myself and realize that I must submit all of me to Christ and not simply pray that He will save my disembodied soul or fulfill my fine (and equally disembodied) spiritual aspirations or meet my religious needs and desires.

No Christ comes and saves not souls but persons.

And to do so, he enters fully into what it means to be, as we are, enslaved to the works of the flesh. But while Christ and I are both under sin, Christ willingly enslaves Himself to sin but without Himself sinning: "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4;15).

The great sorrow of sin is that it limits me to only a small part of my own humanity. Like the alcoholic, the problem is not that I enjoy wine, but that in my addiction, I enjoy only wine. But wine enjoyed separate from the great communion of creation soon becomes something that I no longer am able to enjoy.

So Christ return us to human life it its fullness. And He does so by Himself being fully human not only formally, but concretely. Again, from St Cyril homily:
Christ raised him who descending to his grave. The manner of his rising is plain to see. "He touched," it says, "the bier and said 'Young man, I say unto thee, arise.'" How was not a word enough to raise hum who was lying there? What is so difficult to it or past accomplishment? What is more powerful that the Word of God? Why then did he not work the miracle by only a word but also touched the bier?
It was, Cyril says, so that we "might learn that the Holy Body of Christ is productive for the salvation of man." In Christ, human flesh becomes "the body of life" and is "clothed with [divine] might."

Like "iron, brought into contact with fire," the sin-bound but sinless "flesh of Christ . . . has the power of giving life and annihilates the influence of death and corruption" that overwhelms us and drowns us, turning even our best intentions and noblest desires (like empathy for each other in our need) against us.

To be saved, to be in Christ, means that we are not only liberated from sin, but are united once again to one another. Again to borrow from St Cyril: Christ has entered into our sinfulness and has delivered us "from evil works, even from fleshly lusts" so that He "may unite us to the assembly of the saints."

And He saves us by giving us back to ourselves--or maybe more accurately, He returns to us the transcendent possibilities of our own humanity. We need no longer remain ourselves enslaved to the works of the flesh, we need no longer lead truncated lives, we need no longer with tears simply accompany one another to the grave.

in Christ, life every lasting is now give to us. We can love one another and need no longer fear the weight of our shared humanity.

To Christ be the Glory!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory