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The Characteristics of Genuine Prayer

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (C)  |  Fr Neil Ferguson looks at the four characteristics of genuine prayer according to the teaching of St Thomas.

One of the greatly respected and beloved Fathers of the Desert was known as Abba Bessarion. He lived among the monks of Egypt in the great heyday of monasticism in the desert. One day he was seated in church with his fellow monks, composing themselves to take part in the Divine Liturgy. There was a sudden commotion. The priest of the church had heard (probably from another monk) that one of the brothers was a sinner, and the cleric took it upon himself to eject the man from church. Abba Bessarion got up and was heard to say (in a loud stage whisper- I like to think): “I too am a sinner.”, and he also left the church. On another occasion, a young monk asked Bessarion how to live in community: “Keep silence and do not compare yourself to others.”

Abba Bessarion comes to mind when reading today’s parable. The pharisee behaves in the opposite way to Bessarion, he precisely does compare himself to others, and is very pleased with himself that he is not a sinner, and is pleased to inform God of all this in many words. The tax collector cannot even bring himself to look at others, nor up to heaven, and simply repeats the mumbled phrase: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The key phrase is that the Pharisee addresses the prayer “to himself”, not to God. His monologue is entirely self-referential. His pride is so colossal it spoils the genuinely good acts he enumerates. As the first reading points out, humility is the key to genuine prayer, the humble man’s prayer “pierces the clouds.”

Prayer, in order to be genuine, should have four characteristics, says St Thomas. It should be devout, full of faith, hope, and humility, also persevering. The Pharisees prayer is full of devotion to himself, and faith in his own works. Certainly he has faith in God, but his pride kills it stone dead. In the Gospel last week, we had an example of perseverance in the endlessly nagging widow. Next week, we have an example of hope in Zacchaeus, who climbs the tree to wait in joyful hope. This week, the tax collector embodies humility.

Humility, if it is genuine, is not a melodramatic, self-regarding abjection; it is an unflinching look at the reality of oneself in the light of God and others. It moderates, Thomas says, our hopes and our boldness, it restrains us from unreasonable heights. It is a spiritual exercise in realism. Such an exercise reveals both our strengths and weaknesses. For our strengths we give thanks to God, and for our weaknesses we ask for forgiveness, and the grace to overcome them. So between the two men the tax collector is the realist, and the Pharisee the fantasist. His fantasy is all the more dangerous because it is rooted in the truth. He does, on paper, live out the moral life. But his narcissism prevents him being aware of God’s grace, and the weaknesses he undoubtedly has. 
We are complex creatures. On the one hand, we are created in God’s image and likeness, unique, loved, redeemed. On the other we belong to a fallen race, personally and corporately capable of the most eye-watering wickedness. As St. Paul puts it, in his usual trenchant way, we were: “by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” Not that the goodness of our nature is totally destroyed. Thankfully, there is no such thing as total depravity.

There is such a thing as repentance though, and we can happily suppose that the tax collector continued in his way of conversion, drawn on by God’s love. His first big step was of course, with Abba Bessarion, admitting that he was a sinner.

So what of Paul’s beautiful phrase about himself in the second reading? “I have fought the good fight. I have run the race to the end. I have kept the faith.” Is he reverting to type? Is he becoming like the pharisee in the parable? Of course the answer is no. What he says is absolutely realistic and true, a gift of God’s grace and the fruit of Paul’s own response. He can say it in all humility. 

Ecclesiasticus 35:12-14.16-19  |  2 Timothy 4:6-8.16-18  |  Luke 18:9-14 

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. of a window in St Gregory's parish church in Tredington.

Neil Ferguson O.P.

fr. Neil Ferguson O.P. is a member of the Priory of The Holy Cross, Leicester  |


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