Lies, Union and Prayer
God is radically different from ourselves. “My thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is 55:8). Sometimes God’s unfathomable condescension, by which He became like us in all things but sin, leads us to forget just how radically different God is. But it also gives us a clue as to the nature of that difference. For the difference consists precisely in sin; it consists in all the many ways in which we are blind and deaf to the good; it consists of our continuous following in the ways of men; it consists in all our lies.
To one degree or another, each of us is a member of an “evil and adulterous generation” (Mt 12:39). We have little excuse, we who have received the “sign of Jonah”, the Resurrection. Yet we persist in glossing over the same old sins, living in the same old patterns, satisfied with what amounts to a Christian veneer of “kindness”, rarely challenging cultural conventions or established behavior patterns. Almost never do we serve as a “sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34), laying bare the thoughts of many through a courageous imitation of Christ.
What Must I Do to Be Saved?
The point of religion is union with God, a participation in God’s own life, which we call holiness. Nonetheless, the question of the rich young man about what he must do to inherit eternal life (Mk 10:17ff) is an excellent starting point. It is not for nothing that John Paul II used this very passage as the key to unlocking his great encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). Jesus himself gets down to essentials very quickly: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Consequently, He goes on to demand radical change—a radical detachment to enter the Kingdom of God. In this episode, the required detachment is from material goods, for the young man already keeps the commandments, but it could just as easily be detachment from false ideas, evil habits, comfortable assumptions, complacency.
Our Lord teaches that it is in fact impossible for those of us who are not detached to enter the Kingdom on our own. That’s a precise measure of how different we are from God. To enter we must be radically changed by God’s transforming love: “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:27). This comes only through sacrifice, through giving up “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions” in order to attain “eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:29). In short: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24).
Losing Our Lives
All Christians are nominal Christians when compared with Christ. The first problem most of us face is that we simply don’t even see how much our lives consist of misunderstandings, evasions, and complacencies, many of them drawn from the surrounding culture. Seldom do we examine these easily-formed assumptions, because they make us so comfortable. But it is precisely these complacent lives that we must lose. A large part of the process of putting on Christ, of becoming holy, is the process of becoming counter-cultural. With rare exceptions, Christ’s warnings ought to tell us what our dulled instincts don’t: If it is popular, if it is the way “everybody” does things, if it is approved by the cultural elites—that is, if it goes well in the world—then it is very probably a misunderstanding, an evasion or a complacency. It is very probably something that we need to lose if we are to win.
Let me give but one example. I recently exchanged emails with a correspondent who had taken exception to my assertion that there are still many parishes with liturgical irregularities, unsound preaching, and doctrinally-deficient schools. He thought the opposite, that things were going well, that priests, deacons and lay people almost everywhere are deeply committed and doing a good job. In response, I asked him how often he had heard from the pulpit any preaching against those things which the culture favors, such as contraception. His reply was succinct and to the point: “In a world of death by unjust war, rampant disease, homelessness, starvation, hatred for the other etc. I would hope you would agree that the Catholic position on contraception does not rise to the level of a deal breaker.”
This statement is right out of the culture, a direct result of misunderstanding, evasion and complacency; it arises from the very core of the lives we need to lose. The radical transformation we require to unite ourselves with God and enter His Kingdom begins with interior readjustments of priorities like these. That transformation begins with the perception of the selfishness at the center of our being, and a determination to root it out. For is not contraception a very great selfishness? Does it not lie near the heart of who we are, how we interact with others (especially men with women), the values we impart to our children, the testimony we carry into the world? Is it not at or near the root of our culture’s inability to sustain any deeply personal generosity, not to mention marriage and family life? And for that matter, does it not lead to disease (think of STDs), poverty (think of abandoned women), murder (think of abortion) and attitudes which engender conflicts of every kind?
All Our Lies
How often do we lie to ourselves in precisely this sort of way? How often have we fallen so deeply into prevailing patterns of thought that (as was John Paul II’s point) we cannot any longer even perceive the splendor of the truth? How often do we dismiss very grave evil by locating it outside ourselves, giving it a new name in distant groups or in social structures, feeling good about ourselves because we have voted to end injustice, or have supported some new “program”, or have done some fashionable good deed? “I’ve reduced my carbon footprint by 2%,” we brag, comfortably forgetting that we are all decaying carbon, returning rapidly to dust. Complacency and half-measures—or less than half! We are all guilty. In some measure, we all live a lie. If we suddenly realized all the lies we live, we would despair.
And behold, a man from the crowd cried: “Teacher, I beg you to look upon my son, for he is my only child; and behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out; it convulses him till he foams, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not. (Lk 9:38-40)
Does this not sound very much like what our lies do to us? And how does Jesus answer? “Oh faithless and perverse generation,” He says. “How long shall I be with you, and bear with you?” (Lk 9:41) He is talking about us. In fact, He is shouting. But in His mercy, He does not stop there. His final words are: “Bring your son here.”
Indeed, Christ invites all the sons of men to draw near with their demons, and He gives us one foolproof way to do so. Every spiritual master in the history of the Church has taught that holiness begins and ends in personal prayer. If we ignore personal prayer—even if we participate in public liturgies or other group prayer—we will never draw close enough to the Master. Private, personal prayer is the way we open ourselves to grace by unmasking all our lies. If we do not have a strong, personal prayer life (guided always according to the mind of the Church), we have not yet brought ourselves all the way to Jesus. We are still crying out at a safe distance, if we are crying out at all. From such a vantage point, we will rarely be able to see the lies we live. We must go personally to Jesus, allowing Him to rebuke and drive out our unclean spirits (Lk 9:42), allowing Him to dwell in us (Jn 14:23), until, having been crucified with Christ, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). St. Paul urges us to “pray constantly” (1 Ths 5:17), but to make progress we must—first, foremost and always—set aside regular private time for personal prayer.
Prayer is the key to union. Union is the key to life. And now Holy Week is upon us, the week of Our Lord’s suffering and death, the week when He taught us by example what it means to take up the cross “daily” (Lk 9:23). Let us not speak to ourselves about how well we are doing, how fine things are, how we see all those around us doing their best. Let us neither judge our faith by what is fashionable, nor commit ourselves to what our neighbors find wise, nor speak of Christian achievement according to the comforts of our culture. Let us leave behind our platitudes and slogans. If we understand anything, we should understand that there is only one slogan we have ever shouted with absolute conviction: “Crucify Him!”
We are not yet like Christ. We are merely like Him in everything but our lies. It is time to start (or restart) identifying and rejecting our lies, the same lies that throw us constantly into the waters of complacency and the fires of desire. Truly, says Jesus Christ (Mk 9:29), “This kind can only come out through prayer.”
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