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. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
The gospel for Ash Wednesday comes from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ teaching on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting contains an admonition not to do these things with an eye to others but for God alone. We are social beings and much of who we take ourselves to be is constituted by our relationships with others. It is the appeals and the demands of others and the world around us that in large part constitutes our sense of self and that motivates and moves us to act and to speak. In today’s gospel, however, Jesus summons us, at the beginning of Lent, to go to our inner room, close the door, and pray to our Father in secret. He seems to say that it is only there, unseen by others and unaffected by our socially constructed reality, that we truly pray.
In his Counsels To A Religious On How to Reach Perfection, St. John of the Cross writes: “. . . you should live in the monastery as though no one else were in it.” He continues to say that one should attempt not to “meddle in things that happen in the community, nor with individuals in it, desiring not to notice their good or bad qualities or their conduct.” Jesus in the gospel speaks of our not being seen in our giving of alms, or fasting, or praying, while John speaks of not “meddling” in the lives of others. In both cases, however, the teaching is to “mind our own business.” In fact, we could say, that if we do not mind our own business, we shall never know what it is.
From the age of twelve Jesus made clear that he had to be in his Father’s house and about his Father’s business. (Luke 2:49) To be about God’s business for us requires that we abide with God, in God’s house. The forces of society are so strong for us, that it is always easy for us to live a life, to be about a business, that our surroundings impose on us. Much, if not most of the time, we attribute the value of what we do to the way it is recognized and perceived by the world around us. We crave affirmation of our works and our lives because we lack the inner confirmation that only ourselves and God can give.
The tension between the truth of deep solitude and our socially constituted identity exists even in our life of prayer. In the gospel Jesus reprimands the “hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners.” Except in certain restricted societal segments, it would hardly seem that this is a temptation for most of us in a secular society. Yet, we are constantly subtly being tempted to “perform” in prayer, if not for others then for God and ourselves. Self-knowledge is rare and difficult. We have formed our lives so significantly based on the desire and need to appease or resist others that it can be difficult to know who we are even after we have gone to our inner room and closed the door.
In highly secularized cultures, we speak often of religious practice as a very personal matter. What we often seem to mean by this is that one’s relationship to God should be kept to oneself and not brought into one’s life in society. While the positive side of this perspective may be respect for diversity of beliefs and practices, the negative aspect can be that it enhances our omnipresent tendency to spiritual compartmentalization. There is often in our lives very little integration between our inner and outer lives, between our belief, and even prayer, and the reformation of our deformed dispositions of heart.
According to Jan van Ruusbroec when a person stands in the place of one’s own “littleness,” knowing one’s littleness and need, then such a person makes a valley of humility. When Jesus says that in prayer we are to go to our inner room and close the door and pray to our God in secret, he says that true prayer only happens when all of our performance and our other-constituted self-understanding falls away. The biblical scholar James L. Kugel relates a personal experience of receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness. He describes this experience as one of a profound and total silence, in which all the music of every day life ceases. By the “music” he means all the unending thoughts and words that fill our minds in our daily lives. To be told one’s life is ending is to be put in a different place where the little that we are is all we have.
True prayer is possible in that inner roomwhere the music has stopped. It is the inner room whose door is closed to all the distractions, distortions, flattery, and influence of the outside. Ruusbroec says that in the valley of humility in which we know our own littleness and need, we find ourselves surrounded by two mountains, “that is, two desires; one to serve God and praise Him with reverence, the other to attain noble virtues.” It is only in the valley of humility, in the inner room, that we touch our deepest desires and longings. We long to serve and praise God, something which we can only faithfully do in integrity. We serve and praise God by living the life and call that God has given us, not the one we have assumed over a lifetime. One of our deepest and most painful longings is to do with our lives the work that God has given us to do in creating us. Our actual lives are always at something of a distance from that longing, which is why we so often distract ourselves from it. The other desire or mountain, says Ruusbroec, is our desire to “attain noble virtues.” This is the experience we all know of the gap between how we live and act and who it is we intuit ourselves to be before God.
To go into our inner room and close the door, to enter the valley of humility is to be willing to be alone with God in the experience of our longing and our lack. To pray in this way is to empty ourselves of our illusions to the degree that, as Ruusbroec says, “And then that generosity cannot withhold itself, it must flow forth; for then the soul is made ready to receive, and to hold, more gifts.” Simply put, there is so often for us so little connection between prayer and change because we must be made ready to receive and to hold the gifts of reformation and transformation that God would give us. If we are praying for things “in the synagogues and on the street corners,” that is, remaining full of ourselves, there is no space for God to enter and change us.
Jesus teaches that, before all else, prayer requires true honesty with ourselves. Otherwise it is but another social duty or activity. To be connected with God we must at times become socially disconnected, no easy task in our age. It is not easy to be alone, especially when our cultures do not form us to bear it. Without the honesty that solitude and silence brings, however, we risk creating a human society that is constituted merely by phantoms and shadows. Perhaps there is a deep truth to the seemingly bizarre view of some in our day that we are living but an “alternate reality” that is somehow controlled by a superior and alien intelligence. To live only our external and social identity is to live an alternate reality that is not true. It is to build a world on the sand of our own illusions. Without going to our inner room and closing the door at times, we risk the possibility of spending our days and never living our true lives. May this Lent give us the courage to be silent and still, to detach from the world in honest and true prayer that we may be more and more transformed into the instrument of God’s life and peace that we have been created to be.
Learn first how to be alone, and you will doubtless also learn the true worship of God, which is to think highly of God and humbly of yourself. Not as if you ought to make yourself humbler than your neighbor, as if that would lend you dignity, for remember that you are before God. Not to make yourself more humble than your enemy, as if that would make you better; for remember that you are before God. But true worship is to think humbly of yourself.
Soren Kierkegaard, Two Discourses of God and Man, 30