The disorienting quality of real prayer Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Mar. 31, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

Editor’s note: Because of its length, this column by Bishop Robert Barron is being published in a two-part series. This is the second part of the series.

Hans Urs von Balthasar observes that the beautiful elects the observer and then sends him on mission to announce what he has seen.

Not many years ago, Rolling Stone magazine asked a number of prominent popular musicians to name the song that first “rocked their world.”

Some of the responses were relatively banal, but the vast majority of them had a Joycean resonance: the respondents knew instinctively the difference between songs (however great) that had merely pleased them and songs that had shaken them out of their complacency and rearranged their vision things.

This kind of aesthetic encounter is the spiritual exercise that Irish Murdoch is speaking of.

It is against this Murdochian background that I should like to consider the familiar Gospel story of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk 18:9-14).

Pharisee’s prayer

Jesus tells of a Pharisee who “took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax-collector.’”

This is, Jesus suggests, a fraudulent, wholly inadequate prayer, precisely because it simply confirms the man in his self-regard. The words are, obviously enough, just elaborate self-congratulation, but even the Pharisee’s body-language gives him away: he takes up his position, standing with a confidence bordering on arrogance in the presence of God.

The prayer itself confirms the Pharisee’s world. Like a second-rate work of art, or like the tourist’s language spoken by the dilettante, it functions simply to please. And the god to which he prays is, necessarily, a false god, an idol, since it allows itself to be positioned by the ego-driven needs of the Pharisee.

Publican’s prayer

But then Jesus invites us to meditate upon the publican’s prayer.

First, his stance is telling: “But the tax-collector stood off at a distance would not even raise his eyes to heaven . . .” This man realizes that he is in the presence of a power that he cannot even in principle manipulate or control; and he signals with his body, accordingly, that he is positioned by this higher authority.

Then he speaks with a simple eloquence: “He beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” Though it is articulate speech, proceeding from the mind and will of the publican, it is not language that confirms the independence and power of the speaker, just the contrary. It is more of a cry or a groan, an acknowledgement that he needs to receive something, this mysterious mercy for which he begs.

Comparing the two

In the first prayer, god is the principal member of the audience arrayed before the ego of the Pharisee. But in this second prayer, God is the principal actor, and the publican is the audience awaiting a performance the contours of which he cannot fully foresee.

And therefore the publican’s prayer is the kind of spiritual exercise of which Iris Murdoch speaks. It is akin to the experience of being mastered by the French language, or by Picasso’s Guernica, or by Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa.

The ‘Jesus prayer’

In the eastern Christian tradition, the “Jesus prayer” is all-important. Whether recited throughout the day by the contemplative monk or spoken occasionally by the business person immersed in the cares of the secular world, this prayer anchors the spiritual life of many Christians.

It is a formula derived from the tax-collector’s prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is simple, unadorned, even blunt. But it has the essential virtue of knocking the ego off of its pedestal and rocking the world of the one who utters it.

In this, it both opens the sinner to transformation and honors the true God.

Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at