For lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble. And the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the Lord of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.
Malachi 3: 19-20
And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Luke 11: 9-10
Samuel Johnson pointedly observed : “When a man knows he is to be hanged . . . it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The gospel reading for today from Luke introduces us to a person whose mind is wonderfully concentrated. A friend has arrived in the middle of the night, and he has nothing to give him to eat. So, he goes to his friend who lives nearby and knocks on his door to wake him and ask for three loaves of bread. At first his friend reminds him it is the middle of the night and to go away. Because his need has so focused his attention, however, he refuses to go until his friend gives him the bread. To this, Jesus says: “I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.” Thus, Jesus is teaching that persistence (a concentrated mind) is a necessary disposition for prayer.
Implied in Dr. Johnson’s aphorism about imminent hanging and concentration is the truth that for much of our lives we live with a dispersed consciousness. Our minds tend to wander at will for lack of the realization of and attention to a need that would focus them. In the face of the gallows, all of one’s secondary preoccupations fade away. Similarly for the person in Jesus’ parable, his shame at his inability to provide for his guest according to his duty will not allow him to give up his request of his friend, even in the face of immediate rejection.
Luke Timothy Johnson translates the original anaideia (persistence) as “shamelessness.” The man who is seeking the bread from his neighbor is driven by a “shamelessness” that is not inhibited by social convention. He knocks in the middle of the night, and he refuses “to take ‘no’ for an answer” to his request. His mind is concentrated by something that is far deeper in him than his social identity with its respect for social norms. So, it seems, that true prayer comes from a place of need in us that supersedes all of the worries and concerns of everyday social life that prey on our attention. What is that need out of which we would find ourselves praying with such shamelessness or persistence?
Today’s reading from Malachi speaks of two classes of people: the proud and evildoers, on the one hand, and those who fear God, on the other. There are those who refuse to live as servants of God, in awareness of a greater responsibility in life, and those who trust in God’s name and attempt to live in care of and response to the wider good. On first reading, I responded with anger and agitation at those who came to mind and whom I identify as the proud and the evildoers, and of what havoc they are wreaking on the world. Yet, I then had to ponder if in this designation of others as proud and evil, I was putting myself in the class of the righteous, and, if that was the case, was I not in the position of the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican at prayer.
it is important to clarify that I am not suggesting that because we are all sinners there is no need to appraise the causes and effects of good and evil in the world, to refuse to distinguish between those who, despite their sinfulness, have an openness to and desire for God and those who live in an encapsulated narcissism. Rather it is to realize how, in large part, my and our own prayer is intermittent and sporadic rather than shameless and persistent. The man in the parable who seeks bread from his neighbor will not and cannot cease asking until he is answered. So often for us, we dip our toe in the ocean of encounter with God and then quickly pull it out again and return to the safety of dry land.
Last night as I was preparing something to eat, i was momentarily overcome by sadness and loneliness over the absence of others whom I deeply miss. I was surprised at what seemed like an unsummoned emergence of such strong feeling. I am aware of the reality of lack and loss in my life, yet, most of the time I live and act at a distance from it. Life is very full, and so, meeting all of its various demands is usually more than enough to occupy my attention and to fill my consciousness. Yet, unexpectedly and uncalled for, a sense of loss and sadness overcame me last evening as I stood at the stove cooking. I was reminded at this moment that there is a life in me that I, in large part, am unconscious of. It is a life of the soul that constantly suffers the losses and lacks, the incompleteness and need, the desire and longing for more that is my own deeper life. it is here that “the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Romans 8: 26). This life in us is persistently and shamelessly always at prayer.
Longer ago than I would like to say I remember, there was a television series entitled “I Led Three Lives.” It was about an FBI agent who worked undercover as a member of the Communist Party. Although we are not government agents, pretty much all of us live multiple lives. What we often take to be “real life” is the life that others see, the life of our dispersed consciousness. The very purpose and design of this life is, in part, to keep our deeper life at bay. it is to be busy enough to keep us distanced from the needs we have that would give our lives of prayer greater persistence. Many years ago, a very good friend lost his son to cancer after having cared for him twenty-four hours a day for four or five years. Some months after his son had died, I asked him how he was doing. His response was that often he was okay, but then at moments, he would be overcome by sadness. He gave an example of one day going into the post office alone, whereas in the past his son would always accompany him. As he stood in line he suddenly became so overwhelmed with sadness that he had to move over to the counter and hold on to keep himself upright.
When we are touched by grace, by the love of God, we experience life, including our own life, that is so much more than that of which we are usually aware. It is a life that suffers joy as well as sadness, love as well as hate and rage, trust and abandonment as well as dread and fear that far exceed our ordinary sense of our capacities. This life is the place where we “pray always.” This is what Ruusbroec calls our “ordinary” life.
We are distracted in prayer because we are distracted in life. Of course we must have an adequate “apparent form” of life that makes everyday functioning possible. Yet, we must not let the shame we often feel at our own deeper life keep us from persisting in our efforts to know it. The sinfulness that those who come to know the life and love of God often speak of is our forgetting and refusal of our “ordinary” life in favor of some apparent and acceptable version of ourselves in the social sphere. To experience the power of real life and the love of God that animates it is to live in repentance of what we settle for through most of our days, for the inauthenticity that we accept as our lives, as the way things are.
So it is that the experience of the love of God always brings sorrow with it. Yet this sorrow is not the opposite of joy; in fact it is its complement. It is the realization of the truth that we are loved in our sinfulness with a love that calls for all our attention. The more we know in our very being this love for us, the more persistently we shall pray out of our sorrow for our sin and our gratitude for our very being — in the love of God.
From this grace of God and this free conversion of a will that has been enlightened by grace, charity is born, that is, divine love, and from divine love there arises the third thing that is required if a person is to see in a supernatural way, namely, a purification of his conscience. These three things are so intimately related to one another that one of them cannot last long at all without the others, for whoever has divine love necessarily has perfect sorrow for his sins. Still, it is permissible to understand the sequential ordering of the things of God and of creatures as it has here been described: God bestows his light, and through that light a person responds with a free and perfect conversion; from these two there arises a perfect love toward God, and from this love there issues a perfect sorrow for sin and a purification of one’s conscience; this last occurs when one reflects upon his offenses and upon the way these have disfigured the soul. Because he loves God, a person becomes displeased with himself and all his works. This is the sequence of events in the process of conversion.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, I, i