“Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours. When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions.”
Recently I was speaking with a Sister who has just received a new candidate into her community. A concern she feels about this candidate is that whenever she has any free time the candidate rushes to the chapel and sits bolt upright in prayer. The community lives the Rule of St. Benedict, and so it works at living out its life of prayer in all the dimensions of life, in the kitchen, the garden, the dining room, and the private cell, as well as in the chapel. This sense of prayer is well captured by the lesson that St. Teresa of Avila gave to her sisters: “When you pray, pray, and when you partridge, partridge.”
It is easy for some of us to live a somewhat spiritually schizophrenic life. For much of our day and our life we are forgetful of God and of our place in God. We do our work and spend our time as if the “the kingdom, and the power, and the glory” are ours. We then rush to the chapel, or our own equivalent, and with great effort and strain attempt to make contact with God who we experience as a far distant object.
Søren Kierkegaard’s understanding of this is the tension between our actual life and our idealized life. Because we truly are spirit, we are a self in the spirit. Yet, we, our actually embodied and enfleshed selves, create an idealized self that we are always straining to realize. The problem is that the idealized self, while springing from our spirit, is actually imaginary. So, it is very easy for us to create a “spiritual life” which is in service to our own imaginations.
This also accounts for why Jesus’ words today, as he tells us that all we ask for in prayer, if we believe it, will be ours, can seem, if we are honest with ourselves, untrue to us. At least in my own experience, prayer quite often has about it aspects of performance. I am at those moments being before God as I think God would have me be. I am bringing to God, in a sense, my imaginary idealized self. The “I” who is speaking to God is the one whom I think I am supposed to be, and so it is not the one who at my very core needs to be forgiven.
Jesus’ words today give us a way to “identify” the one we have brought to prayer. “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions.” Our imaginary or idealized self is one who cannot forgive others, because it is not the one who knows through and through its need to be forgiven. We fail to bring all of ourselves to God because we cannot trust and believe that we can be forgiven. Kierkegaard in the prayer below says that in the external world we live out contestations of strength. Our false or pride form lives relationships in which we are either stronger than another or envious or resentful of the greater strength of the other. Forgiveness is impossible in this mental world. This is the way of being represented by the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. “I thank you that I am not like the rest of the human race.”
When we are in a performance mode at prayer, and this is usually unconscious, we bring to God in prayer the good or dutiful boy or girl who is being the self that our imaginations have created as our true or ideal self. This is a mode of strength and not of weakness. It is not living in the place that knows its total reliance on the mercy and forgiveness of God. And so, it is unable to forgive anyone against whom it has a grievance. it knows nothing of forgiveness, because it is precisely avoiding that in itself which it is certain cannot be forgiven. In its false pretensions of strength it can only see its own strength as superior to others or else resent the strength it perceives in others.
On the other hand, says Kierkegaard, in our inner world, in the place where our spirit is truly alive and active, we are all weak. This is the stance of the Publican in the parable. “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is the self we are that knows our own need of forgiveness and so lives from a foundation of trust in God’s mercy and not on its own strength. In this place, there is a sense of identification and communion with the failings of others which we see in the light of God’s mercy to us.
Perhaps a rather common experience of human development may help us to understand this tension and dynamic more fully. Often well into adulthood we carry with us our childhood sense of and relationship to our parents. The understanding and view we have of them is not of just other human beings like ourselves, but rather as the “big people” whose role in life was to be our caretakers, to be the stronger ones in the face of our weakness. This leads us to experience our relationship to them as both idealized on the one hand, and resentful on the other. We know the love we have for them, as they nurtured our life when we were totally dependent on them, when we could not have survived without them. On the other hand, we also experienced the hurt and suffering of such an imbalance of power, when they, deliberately or indeliberately, hurt us or failed us. Many of us experience that our parents can, in fact, be for us among the most difficult persons to forgive.
I recall a discussion, many years ago, between my aunt and my mother about their mother. My grandmother was an immigrant from Italy who could not read or write in Italian or English. Nonetheless, she was able, widowed in her late twenties, to raise a family of 5 children. For reasons still unclear to me, however, my own mother had a great difficulty with her. In fact, my mother left home while still in high school, to make her own way and to distance herself from her mother. Many years later my aunt and mother were speaking about their mother. In the course of the conversation, my mother, who had found it necessary to leave home, spoke with admiration, as she often did, about how their mother had done so much on her own, given all of the difficulties of her life. In response, my aunt retorted rather angrily, “Face it, she didn’t have time for us.”
Almost all of us have in our own lives some variant of this story. Although I myself feel as if I have very little to complain about with my parents, for a long time I felt resentment for the ways that they had fallen short in my regard. Well into middle age, however, I slowly came to realize that my parents were not only my parents. They were persons, like me, in their own right. They had strengths, as I do, and weaknesses, as I do. I could see in my own life and work that I had been at various times both good for and not good for others, including those given to my care. I was beginning to understand that even when I did my best, there would always be times that I would need to be forgiven, not only for my conscious and deliberate errors and failings but sometimes even more so for my inherent limits and weaknesses that caused suffering for others.
As my parents and I became , in my consciousness, peers in the human condition, I began to feel a compassion born of my own need to be forgiven. Because of who, in truth, we are, our efforts will always be partial. Even if we do our best, which of course is not always the case, our love and our care will be lacking. A wonderful but difficult to comprehend truth for us is that the very nature of God, and so of the universe, is forgiveness. To be generous is to live out and to give our life to the full, not being inhibited by the fact that we will undoubtedly fail at times. We are to love as best we can, even though our love will always be partial and at times even hurtful. And we are to allow others to love us, even though that will require at times our forgiveness of them.
Jesus points out to us that prayer and forgiveness are inextricably intertwined. When we pray, we submit the truth of ourselves to God. We raise our hearts to God from our true place, realizing our own lowliness as we do so. From that place of being “brought low,” we discover our common humanity and a merciful love that is common to us all. As God’s love for us is a love for all, so is God’s forgiveness of us. Without forgiveness our lives would be static and lifeless. We cannot really pour out our lives to the world and give all we have in love and work without knowing that we shall be forgiven. This is why perfectionism is always lifeless and rigid. If we cannot dare to make mistakes and even at times to hurt others, we shall remain immobile.
To really pray is to engage life and world knowing that we shall inevitably fail it at times. It is then to come before God in truth, trusting in God’s forgiveness of us and realizing that God’s forgiveness is for us all. The is why Reinhold Niebuhr says that the final form of love, for us, is forgiveness. It is also the heart of true prayer.
Father in Heaven! In the external world one is stronger, another is weaker; the first is perhaps proud of his strength and the second perhaps sighs and feels jealous; but in our own inner world we are all weak in the light of Thy countenance. Thou the powerful one, Thou, the only strong one.
Søren Kierkegaard, The Prayers of Kierkegaard,, ed. Perry D. LeFevre, p. 6