Wednesday, February 26, 2020

On Ash Wednesday

"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them…But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your father in secret.” I imagine that most of us would rather curl up and die than to pray at a street corner so as to be seen by others. Let alone, have a trumpet fanfare accompaniment. Even so, the possibility of prayer being a performance, contaminated by self-consciousness, is an ever-present danger in subtle and pervasive ways. It can involve wanting to look good before others. Or it can involve, more insidiously to my mind, wanting to look good to ourselves - staving off neurotic guilt, being pleased with ourselves and our prayer ‘performance’. Jesus is clear and unambiguous about this. No matter how subtly, even subconsciously, it happens, when our prayer is in service of our appearance to others or to ourselves, then that’s the reward we get - we look good….and that’s it! There really is no such thing as reward when it comes to prayer!

True prayer is always open to and receptive to the gift of transformation. It always leads us beyond the limits of our self-consciousness and self-absorption. It’s always vulnerable---pushing us from the solid and secure ground of the shore, where we feel safe. True prayer doesn’t keep one eye on what it looks like or what is going on or what isn’t going on. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, after all. The attentiveness of true prayer is always single-minded, one-pointed, undivided. Its horizon is always God alone. “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door (and I would add - don’t look behind the door,  and don’t look in the mirror) and pray to your Father in secret.” “In secret.” Hidden. Beyond anything we can imagine or, much less, manipulate.

If this is what true prayer is all about, it seems almost like an impossibility. Personally, I know how intrinsically self-conscious I can be when it comes to prayer, to leaving myself behind, to pushing off from the shore. Who is the self that is doing the leaving, and who is the self that is being left behind? Sometimes I feel like a dog chasing its tail. The difficulty, as I see it, is that we can’t let go of self-consciousness by an act of the will. We can’t decide to be undivided. No matter how hard we want to get out of the way, to hand ourselves over to God, there always remains a ‘me’ trying to hand myself over, whom I just can’t seem to get behind! I guess St. Paul really did hit the nail on the head when he wrote “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words…”

Lent is a special time for prayer, for consciously coming into the presence of God; for letting go and making space for God to be God for us. A time for consenting, again and again, to be displaced so that God’s Spirit can pray within us. A time to be and to live undividedly towards God and so to release ourselves and others from the countless reciprocities of blame and bitterness in all their various shades. A time to grow in being increasingly content to be handed over, again and again, with no self-protection to the sheer loving goodness of God our Father.

Photographs by Brother Brian. Reflection by Father Damian.