Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dare we pray

Seventeenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

I often remember God with sympathy whenever I’m confronted with the demands of parishioners. I do agree that as a pastor, part of my job description is to give a listening ear to their troubles, their problems, and, of course, their complaints. But for many, listening equals obey. “Father you need to listen to me,” equals, “Father you must obey me.” Although I appreciate the many suggestions that come from concerned parishioner who act like expert pastoral consultants on how to be a good priest or a better priest, little do they realise that I often receive conflicting pieces of advice and suggestions from others. Demands can often descend into the ridiculous. Those pushing their demands will insist that I accede to theirs whilst ignoring the rest.  “Father, you have to listen to me,” can be said in the same breath as “Father, you cannot be listening to everyone (referring to the others).” I presume that God often gets this on daily basis a zillion times over. “Lord, listen to my prayer. Don’t listen to theirs!”

The real problem is that so many of us suffer from a profound sense of entitlement. In essence, “I’m SPECIAL!” A sense of entitlement is established and upheld by the belief that we are the centre of the universe, and if the universe doesn't meet our needs and desires, all hell will break loose. The truth is that this malignant form of Self-Love often harms the people around us, which indirectly harms us in the long term.  It eats away at our personal life, our church life and even our relationship with the Lord. People with a profound sense of entitlement are often self-righteous, opinionated, disgruntled and frustrated individuals. They seem to have complaints about anyone and everyone else. They cannot understand why the Powers-that-be and their neighbours and friends don’t exhibit the same intelligence as they do.

When self-entitlement is translated into the spiritual life, it becomes a dangerous enemy of prayer. This is because God is reduced to someone who helps me get what I believe I am entitled to. Just like last week’s gospel passage of the two sisters, Martha and Mary, the voice of entitlement would sound very much like that of Martha’s. “Lord, give me what I want.” This weird “spiritual” entitlement leads us to believe God owes us something, that He is in some way entitled to give us what we want. We have a right to material abundance, comfort, zero-problems, the nice house and all the other things our entitlement culture tells us we deserve.

Perhaps the deepest trial many are experiencing today, that springs from this spiritual sense of entitlement, is the temptation to lose faith in prayer and ultimately lose faith in God. The prayer of doubt which springs from a sense of entitlement asks “why?” “Why did God not answer my prayer?”  But the prayer of faith that springs from true humility asks “how?” “How Lord do you wish me to proceed on the inexplicable path before me?” And He answers, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.” The humble do not understand all of God’s ways; rather, they simply accept them in faith, keeping the Cross and Resurrection as a guiding star before them in the night of suffering.

So with regard to God and entitlement, let me be frank. God owes us nothing. We are not entitled or God is not obligated or in any way relegated to give us anything. He is God. He gives because He WANTS to not because He HAS to. He is the centre of all things and we are not. All things exist for His good pleasure. He does not exist for ours. The Good News is that even though God owes us nothing, out of His great love He will give us what we need and even things beyond our imagination, even when we did not deserve it. Yet He is never obliged to give us a thing. It’s from unconditional love by grace that He gives.

The problem with entitlement is that it creates an attitude that puts a selfish demand on God’s generosity and creates conditions in the relationship that are unhealthy and I would dare say, deadly. If we believe that God owes us something then the measure of our thankfulness is now based on God’s performance and the entitlements we expect from Him. When we sense we have a right to something we distance ourselves from grace and ultimately God. To the extent that we fall into an entitlement trap we become more deserving in our own eyes and God’s grace gets less and less amazing in our estimation. Before we know it, gratitude and thanksgiving are slowly replaced with bitterness, pride and envy.

If self-entitlement is the enemy of prayer, humility is a prerequisite. Prayer ought to be humble. True humility is had when a person does not presume to have power over the other but rather submits to the will of the other. Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus, makes no demands of him. Mary becomes the embodiment of the words found in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Lord’s Prayer is certainly the model prayer par excellence, because it is the epitome of humility.  

In the new translation of the Roman Missal, the Lord's Prayer is introduced by the priest with the words, “At the Saviour's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say...” The current introduction replaces the four options that were available in the earlier translations. The old option that comes closest to the original Latin and the present translation is “we have courage to say.” A superficial reading may treat ‘courage’ and ‘dare’ as interchangeable. However, ‘courage’ and ‘daring’ are potentially quite different in meaning. ‘Courage’ does not necessarily invoke a feeling of humility, whereas ‘we dare to say’ inherently recognises our insignificance before the Father. We use the word ‘courage’ to imply some talent or accomplishment on our part, for example, we can say that we have the courage to speak publicly. But when we use the words, ‘we dare to say’, we humbly admit that it has nothing to do with us, in fact, it admits that it is not anything which we can ever hope to accomplish.

The whole phrase places the Lord’s Prayer in a different light – it is no longer to be seen as a cry of entitlement, a demand made on God to fulfill our petitions and wishes.  But rather, it is prayer of humility by someone truly unworthy to even stand before the august presence of God, the one ‘who art in heaven,’ what more to address Him with the all too familiar moniker of ‘Father’ and make a series of demands of him.  The catechism tells us that “Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to this cry . . . ‘Abba, Father!’ . . . When would a mortal dare call God ‘Father,’ if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?” It is by placing ourselves into the position of a child, calling God our Father, that we open ourselves to the grace by which we approach God with the humble boldness of a little child. As the resilience of children would teach us, let us not give up: the road to Paradise is narrow, but not impossible. It is walked in the humility of faith in the constancy of prayer.

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