Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: / releasing those bound unjustly, / untying the thongs of the yoke; / Setting free the oppressed, / breaking off every yoke? / Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, / bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; / Clothing the naked when you see them, / and not turning your back on your own flesh?Isaiah 58:6-7
“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”Matthew 9:15
In what may seem strange and paradoxical, the readings for these preparatory days for Lent are a call to awaken to the routinization and even maybe meaninglessness of much of our religious practice. On Wednesday, we were warned about the dangers of public displays of religiosity and spiritual pride. Yesterday, we were summoned to own responsibility for our own choices and reminded of how often we choose death over life. And today, we are warned of how readily our prayer, fasting, and religious practice becomes delusional and merely another means of building up our false form of life. At first blush there isn’t much consolation being afforded us.
But at least for me, this is as it should be. Inevitably by the time Lent comes around again each year I need to be awakened to what has inevitably become the dullness, routine, and complacence of my daily life. I must admit to experiencing great discomfort with much, and perhaps even most, of American religious talk and even practice. Without judging the intentions or the hearts of others, I have to say that the nature of the influence of Catholics who have positions of power in American political life is deeply troubling to me. Generally speaking, however, again without judgment of individual persons, it does not seem unfair to say that American Christianity can, in large part, be described as what Johannes Baptist Metz termed “bourgeois Christianity.” It is largely a way of viewing the world that is designed to increase our own sense of comfort, self-satisfaction, and even moral superiority.
Isaiah 58 tells us to forget our personal and pietistic religious practices and rather to “go out” to those bound unjustly, to the oppressed, to the hungry, to the naked, and to the afflicted and homeless. In the past few years there has been much fearful recognition of how readily we as human beings accommodate to a status quo. We have seen, for example, how we have normalized the ignorant, uncivil, and divisive behaviors of a president when, not so long ago, even a single acting out in this way would have disqualified a person in our minds from the office. Yet, Isaiah reminds us that we should not be shocked by our capacity to normalize the unacceptable. We, or at least I, live and move among the homeless in our streets as if their spending the night in the cold and wet and our sleeping warm and comfortably in our beds is as it should be. Since December 29, at least 18 people have died in custody in Mississippi state prisons where, in one facility, there is poor sanitation and the food is rotten and feces infested. While claiming to be believers, and at times even brandishing it, we support systems of injustice and inequality that diminish and degrade countless of our brothers and sisters.
How is it possible that we hear words like those of Isaiah 58 year after year and yet so little seems to change in our world, and even in ourselves? As I read from an essay of Abraham Joshua Heschel this morning, I became at least slightly more aware of the dynamic in my own life and consciousness that may account for this. Heschel quotes someone defining prayer as “the expression of the sense of being at home in the universe.” He points out, however, that through centuries of Jewish history the true motivation for prayer was just the opposite: It was the sense of not being at home in the universe. Our tendency to accept the unacceptable and to “normalize” the profoundly abnormal is due to our need to feel at home in the universe. It is an unconscious reaction intended to enhance our own feeling of security in the world. It is not easy for us to live with a sense of not being at home in the world. And yet, this is precisely how the true revelation calls on us to live. In today’s gospel from Matthew we read: ““Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” While the bridegroom, Jesus, is with his disciples they are “at home” and secure. But the time will come when they will experience his absence, when they will be aliens in the world.
In true prayer, we experience the reality of God’s absence from the very world God has created. And this is why, in real prayer there is always the inspiration “to bring God back into the world.” In true fasting, as Isaiah describes it, we see where and how God is absent, and we recognize the imperative to make God present there. So, in our world we see the glory of God, the Shekinah, where God’s presence and love is being incarnated by us. “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
Because to be human is to be perspectival, it is not surprising that we take revelation and reduce it to our own perspective. The repentance to which Lent calls us, however, is a repentance of greater openness and humility. It is to hear the Word as it is given, not as we nuance and contort it to conform to our perspective. If we do truly hear it and respond in the openness and willingness of true prayer, then we shall recognize the absence of God, as God truly is and in what God truly desires, in our world. St. John of the Cross says, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.” God is absent in the world due to our sin. When we truly repent of our sin, by restoring love where it has been absent, then God’s presence in the world is once again manifest.
In the past few months I have been privileged to observe and be part of the development of the infant daughter of close friends. She is now 8 months old and just recently has begun to crawl. Within a single week she had gone from just barely moving forward to moving all around the house. As she does, she will occasionally turn and look back to make sure her parents are still there. She is learning, as D. W. Winnicott describes it, to expand her “holding environment,” that delicate human balance between our need for security and our aspiration to go beyond, to widen our worlds. At least in part, because of the consistent recognition, love, and holding she receives from her parents, it seems as if she is already becoming a bit adventurous in terms of her going out.
True prayer is only possible to those who have the courage to go out to where God is, or seems to be, absent. It is to dare to enter those places in ourselves and in the world that are in need of God’s redemption. This is possible because we are held by God. As with good parents, however, God does not hold us to keep us from venturing out but precisely in order to enable it. We are able to “put love” where there is no love because we are loved. Love, however, is not complacent and self-satisfying. It is not a matter of our being gratified. It is rather the gift that we have received that we are freely to give. Where and how are we to give it? If we pray, we shall begin to be able to see beyond our own perspective and into a world where the absence of God summons us to offer God’s love in the way we have been given to offer it.
Reading or studying the text of a prayer is not the same as praying. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God. To pray means to expose oneself to God, to God’s judgment.
If “prayer is the expression of the sense of being at home in the universe,” then the Psalmist who exclaimed, “I am a stranger on earth, hide not Thy commandments from me” (119:19), was a person who grievously misunderstood the nature of prayer. Throughout many centuries of Jewish history the true motivation for prayer was not “the sense of being at home in the universe” but the sense of not being at home in the universe. We could not but experience anxiety and spiritual homelessness in the light of so much suffering and evil, in the countless examples of failure to live up to the will of God. That experience gained in intensity by the soul-stirring awareness that God was not at home in a universe where God’s will is defied, where God’s kingship is denied. The Shekinah is in exile, the world is corrupt, the universe itself is not at home.
To pray, then, means to bring God back into the world, to establish God’s kingship, to let God’s glory prevail. This is why in the greatest moments of our lives, on the Days of Awe, we cry out of the depth of our disconcerted souls, a prayer for redemption.Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pp. 109-110