30th Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]

The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Sir 35:12-14,16-18  +  2 Tim 4:6-8,16-18  + Lk 18:9-14
October 23, 2016

“…the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

You might have read that the Pope recently named seventeen new cardinals, including three Americans.  These new cardinals have a big task ahead of them, not only in advising the Pope, but also as they follow in the footsteps of men who have recently served as cardinals.  Men like Raymond Cardinal Burke, Robert Cardinal Sarah, and in decades past Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger have put the Catholic faithful in their debt by serving the Church with great fortitude, wisdom, and zeal.

This past week as I attended our diocese’s annual priest conference, I found myself reflecting on one of these cardinals who is so faithful to Holy Mother Church.  Earlier this month Cardinal Sarah gave an interview about his newly published book, titled The Strength of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.  Unfortunately, the book itself has not been translated into English, but the interview has.

In this interview, Cardinal Sarah speaks about the very subject that Jesus in today’s Gospel passage is focusing upon:  prayer.  The contrast that Jesus established in drawing portraits of two very different men praying forces us to look at how each of us prays.  Not what we pray:  not the words we pray:  not what we pray for:  but how we pray.  This is where Cardinal Sarah’s observations can help us understand today what Jesus spoke about two thousand years ago in giving to His Church this beautiful parable about prayer.

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Cardinal Sarah’s first words in this interview are a quotation from the greatest male saint ever to write about Christian prayer:  namely, Saint John of the Cross.  Many of St. John’s sayings about prayer are puzzling and mysterious, as prayer itself so often is.  The cardinal quotes St. John’s saying that “God’s first language is silence.”

In the seminary, it’s sometimes jokingly said that God’s native language is Latin.  Jewish persons might joke that God’s native language is Hebrew.  But the saint, John of the Cross, insisted very seriously that God’s native language is silence.  At its heart, this statement means that God is absolute Mystery, with a capital “M”.  God is infinitely mysterious.

But what does it mean for how we pray, then, that God is infinitely mysterious?  It means, first and foremost, that everything we do within prayer is infinitely small compared to what God does within prayer.  We offer the words we speak through vocal prayers, and we offer the thoughts and ideas upon which we meditate, but those things are infinitely small compared to what God does in prayer, which is to communicate to each of us His very divine Self.

So if what God does in prayer is infinitely greater that what any of us does, why should we do anything at all in prayer?  Why not just let God do everything?  One answer is that God is a loving Father, and that just as in the home a loving father accepts and loves the pictures scribbled by his children in crayon, so God our Father accepts and loves our efforts in prayer.  Another reason for us making our small human efforts in prayer is that our hearts are so often closed to God, and God refuses to override human free will.  Our small human efforts at prayer, then, are one way of opening our hearts to the love He wishes dearly to pour into them.

Cardinal Sarah says something about silence that seems counter-intuitive.  He states in this interview that “[s]ilence is more important than any other human work.”[1]   He implies that silence itself is a “human work”.  Most persons, I’d venture to say, think of silence as something you don’t do:  silence emerges from an absence of human work.  But no, Cardinal Sarah states that “[s]ilence is more important than any other human work.”  A little later he expands on this thought, stating that the work of silence “is a battle and a form of asceticism.  Yes, it takes courage to free oneself from everything that weighs down our life, because we love nothing so much as appearances, ease and the husk of things.  Carried away toward the exterior by his need to say everything, the [talkative] man cannot help being far from God, incapable of any profound spiritual activity.  In contrast, the silent man is a free man.  The world’s chains have no hold on him.”

As an illustration of his words about silence, he offers an example from his own nation in Africa, where a Marxist regime persecuted the Catholic Church for many decades.  He states: “I think of my predecessor in the [Diocese] of Conakry in Guinea, Archbishop Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo.  He remained in prison for almost nine years, persecuted by the Marxist dictatorship.  It was forbidden for him to meet with or speak to anyone.  The silence imposed by his jailers became the place of his encounter with God.  Mysteriously, his cell became a true ‘novitiate’ and that miserable, sordid little room enabled him to understand somewhat the great silence of Heaven.”   Can you imagine being isolated from all other human beings for nine years?  Most persons in those circumstances would go insane, but this holy archbishop experienced God in a deeper way through the silence of his cell.

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The experience of silence is shown in the character of the humble tax collector in Jesus’ parable today.  Remember that St. Luke the Evangelist tells us that “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”

Where does the approach of this tax collector to prayer come from?  It comes from the same virtue that is the heart of what Cardinal Sarah calls “the work of silence”:  that is, the virtue of humility.

Look at the Pharisee and the tax collector in today’s parable.  They’re opposites.  If union with God is the summit of the mountain of prayer, then it’s true that neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector is at the summit.  They’re both at the base of the mountain.  But they are opposed to each other as they stand at the base of that mountain.  Here’s an example to illustrate the difference between these two.

If you followed the Summer Olympic a few months ago, you probably recognize the name Usain Bolt.  He’s referred to as “the fastest man alive”, winning one Olympic gold medal after another.  But what if I could guarantee you that you could beat this man in a 100-yard dash?  You wouldn’t have to knock him unconscious, or tie his feet together with a rope.  I guarantee that you and Usain Bolt could both begin at the same set of starting blocks, both run 100 meters as fast as you both could run, and you would beat him in the race.

How is this possible?  All you would have to do is to get Bolt to turn around 180°, and face the opposite direction as you at the starting blocks.  You would win the race every time!  Of course, you might object that Bolt would never do that, unless you forced him.  Nonetheless, if you could convince him to do this, you would always win.

But the Pharisee didn’t have to be convinced.  Remember what the evangelist tells us:  that “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”

The Pharisee and the tax collector are facing in opposite directions at the base of the mountain.  As a result, the Pharisee stands and looks away from the mountain, so that every step he takes will remove him farther and farther from the mountain’s summit.  But the tax collector is facing the mountain.  He’s looking up:  towards God and the summit that he still has to climb.  He has a long road before him.  But he’s facing the challenge before him, and the first step forward is humility:  he acknowledges and looks up towards the mountain’s summit.

So from there, consider a little more closely the prayers that the Pharisee and the tax collector make.  Their prayers disclose their hearts, and it’s their hearts that determine the directions they face.

The Pharisee addresses a prayer of thanksgiving to God.  He speaks a prayer of gratitude.  In itself, this would be a good thing to do.  So what makes the Pharisee’s prayer wrong?  Listen to the first five words of the Pharisee’s prayer:  “O God, I thank you….”  He’s off to a good start:  he’s addressing God in gratitude.  “O God, I thank you….”  But what happens next?  This is where the Pharisee goes off the rails.  He prays, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity….”  He’s facing away from the mountain.  He’s using prayer to put a distance between himself and his brothers and sisters.  With every word of the prayer he speaks, he takes another step away from the mountain.

If you look specifically at the words of this parable, you see that Jesus carefully points to the difference between these two.  Jesus explains to us that the Pharisee “spoke this prayer to himself” .  He wasn’t truly praying at all.  The Pharisee was speaking a prayer to himself, not to God.  But the tax collector teaches us how to pray, because he prays with humility.

Seeing in our minds the link between humility and silence on the one hand, and the top of the mountain on the other hand, helps you and me to stand before God in prayer.  In fact, this is true not only in our prayer, but in everything we do.  In everything we do, before we even take our first step, we have to act with humility by facing the right direction and looking up to God, instead of acting for our own sake.  Humility is the beginning, and divine charity—the life of God—is the end.  But without the right beginning, we cannot reach the right end:  the end for which God made us.[2]

[1] Cardinal Robert Sarah, in “Cardinal Robert Sarah on ‘The Strength of Silence’ and the Dictatorship of Noise” at the website of The Catholic World Report: October 3, 2016.

[2] See also St. Bernard of Clairvaux, In the Steps of Humility (London: St. Austin Press, 2001), and Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., Divine Intimacy (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books and Publishers, 1996), especially 777-779.