God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, blessed are you. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you, for I am taking my life in my hand. As a child I used to hear from the books of my forefathers that you, O Lord, always free those who are pleasing to you. Now help me, who am alone and have no one but you, O Lord, my God.
Esther C: 14-16
For everyone who asks receives, and whoever seeks finds, and to one who knocks it will be opened.
Matthew 7: 8
Today’s readings give us a model of prayer in Queen Esther and a teaching of Jesus about the life stance that is a posture of continual prayer. Esther prays out of her recognition that she is fundamentally alone with no help except from God. Her recognition of her and her people’s circumstances have stripped her of any illusions about her importance in the world and her significance to others. It is only from such a place of radical humility that we can become creatures who live in the mode of asking, seeking, and knocking: “Help me who am alone and have no help but you.”
The great obstacle to living in prayer is the illusion of self-sufficiency and the pride of egocentricity. Our “pride-form” has the belief that others and the world can be manipulated in such a way as to serve our benefit and gratification. There is always in us something of a sense of ourselves as “his or her majesty the baby.” The infantile need to recruit the attention of others for our own survival lives on in us as we identify ourselves in terms of the recognition we receive from the world. But, at the moments when our illusions fall away, we realize, as did Queen Esther, that “I am alone and have no help but you.” From that place of our smallness, we can only ask, seek, and knock.
What we experience and call “distractions” in prayer are the detritus of our self-illusions. I am often amazed, for example, that a household task like dusting furniture, which I put off day after day, all of a sudden becomes urgent when I try to sit and be still. Similarly, the worries and anxieties of work tasks, or financial concerns, or memories of past resentments all flood to the forefront of consciousness when I try to quiet myself. My resistance to knowing the reality of who I really am before God is powerful indeed. It is only “the little ones” who know their smallness, their creatureliness before God that are able to live consistently in the stance of asking, seeking, and knocking.
A few days ago a confrere, who was fasting for a medical procedure, pointed out how much more time he seemed to have in the morning when he didn’t have to concern himself with thinking about and preparing what to eat. Perhaps this gives some insight into the Lenten fast. Does this year’s Lenten celebration ask of us to “fast” from some few unnecessary things that so occupy our consciousness and life that there may be some increased moments of stillness? If so, perhaps in this added stillness we can experience an honest “self-presence” that recognizes our deepest identity as a “pray-er”, as one whose very life is an asking, a seeking, and a knocking?
The word “humility” comes from humus, meaning earth. To be humble is to accept one’s earthy condition and to marvel at how this can be capable of thought and love—and God.
As for this demon of pride, the desert fathers recommend their monks to turn towards Christ, the perfect human, the archetype, the person we truly are, “who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are . . . .” This emptying or purification of our ego is revealed in us as a vastness that contains all things.
. . . This root [of suffering] is, in the language of Paul, the “old self”, the self that comforts itself by eating or avarice or pleasure, the self which gets furious when someone disagrees, the self which is saddened by what it lacks, despairs in boredom.
The desert fathers want to substitute this “old self” of St. Paul, a pathological ego-centered attitude, with the Christ or God-centered one. In the psychological language of today we would speak of replacing the neurotic attitude of someone caught in the grip of self-images, with a non egocentric attitude that is open to those adventures inspired by the awareness of life. I am not the only one alive—me and my memories, needs, shortcomings. There is also the Mystery of Life which flows in me with its plenitude, its generosity.
When we are no longer self-centered, no longer slaves of this infantile self who always has to be the centre of the universe and who suffers terribly whenever deprived, we become capable of loving and serving without counting the cost. Is this not the natural, non-pathological way of the adult? It is true, nevertheless, that precious few attain this maturity.
Jean-Yves LeLoup, Being Still: Reflections on an Ancient Mystical Tradition, pp. 41-42