Today’s parable opens to us an important view point: For perhaps we are so used to concentrating our attention on the identity of the two men, one a Pharisee and the other a publican, also referred to as a tax collector, that we neglect the real reason why they went up to the Temple, in the presence of God: in fact they both went to pray!
How much confusion we sometimes encounter in recent years in understanding what prayer is and what it really is to pray. It often happens that we see it defined as a series of texts or reflections; however, prayer is not merely some reflections, aphorisms, introspections, poems, anecdotes, affective and sentimental emotions, etc.
Perhaps it is impossible to arrive at an exact definition of prayer; however, we may at least distinguish between prayer that is personal or communal and the various formulas and modalities that are available. Since true prayer is a relationship with God, it can never be reduced to only an intimate and private fact or act. Furthermore, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what Christian prayer is. We can always be sure of what prayer is, if we turn to the Magisterium of the Church:
Prayer is the elevation of the soul to God or asking God for our needs that conform to His will. It is always a gift of God, the Holy One who wishes and comes to meet with all men and women.
Christian prayer is the personal and living relationship of the children of God with their infinitely good Father, with His Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit who dwells in their hearts (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 534).
The first “movement” is from God: He is the eternal loving Father who in and through Jesus Christ reached and reaches out to us to give us His free, abundant and transforming love and to reveal glorious merciful His face to us. It is He who pours out His Spirit upon us, who arouses the desire for prayer and without which we would not be able to say that: Jesus is Lord or even pronounce the name of our heavenly Father, and it is the Holy Spirit who guides us ever further towards God who is already reaching out to us.
Prayer shows itself as the welcoming response to the loving and saving action of the Trinity in our life. It is the “space” in which we may allow ourselves to be loved and saved. It is the joyful and grateful response of the children who desire nothing more than to adore and praise the mystery that has reached and transformed them, opening to them the horizons of hope and eternal life. It is the humble recognition of one’s own poverty and misery, in need of a continuous and renewed benevolent and merciful intervention of God. It is the immersion in intimacy with the Holy Trinity, for a renewed baptism of purification from our sins and a fresh sanctified life in union with Him. It revitalizes and consolidates us; it bestows upon us the dignity of being children obedient to the ever loving Father.
If these essential and basic elements are not clear, there is the risk of assuming the attitudes of the Pharisee, whom we instinctively criticize, but which we so easily imitate. The Pharisee’s “prayer” was not a real prayer. The Pharisee, in fact, reduces God to a mere notary, to whom he can present his personal merits and qualities, from whom he can expect nothing but a confirmation of his presumed perfection: he has “made God’s love useless” and “has frozen” His omnipotence! Leaning back and contemplating himself like Narcissus in the mirror of his presumption, he refused to look at his life truthfully and issued a violent and final sentence of judgment on the misfortunate tax collector. So destroyed was his relationship with God, that he no longer had a true understanding of himself and unleashed himself against his brother.
So radically different was the attitude of the tax collector: who expresses the true and essential form of prayer! Before the holiness of God and under His gaze, his own sins and failures appear evident to the publican. He recognizes that for him there is only one way of salvation: humility: repentance of his sin and invoking the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord.
The humble and confident attitude unleashes the bountiful and immense love of God and from the depth of His omnipotence, He is capable of freeing humanity from the imprisonment of sin and snatching us from lasting failure.
Prayer, faith and humility appear to be so closely linked to each other to the point of coinciding with each other, to form the luminous faces of the only real and lasting jewel, which is the Christian life.
The Lord is close to those who are troubled, marginalized, weary, lonely and heartbroken, to those who repent, and yes! — He listens to the cry of the poor, to the humble, to those who do not presume anything from within themselves; they simply trust in God.
May the Holy Spirit rise up within us and sustain our prayer amongst the clouds that may often hang over the skies of our lives. Let us pray like Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ — so that we might take care of our common home, to thank God for His creation, for our lives. Let us unite ourselves to Jesus’ own prayer and to the good fight He fought for us through prayer from Gethsemane till His triumphant death on the Cross. Let us strive to keep faith alive, asking that the true fruit of prayer may be manifested in us to the glory of God the Father and the fulfillment of His Holy Will in each and every one of us. In Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis sums up the needs of our whole human family in: A Prayer to the Creator:
Lord, Father of our human family,
you created all human beings equal in dignity:
pour forth into our hearts a fraternal spirit
and inspire in us a dream of renewed encounter,
dialogue, justice and peace.
Move us to create healthier societies
and a more dignified world,
a world without hunger, poverty, violence and war.
May our hearts be open
to all the peoples and nations of the earth.
May we recognize the goodness and beauty
that you have sown in each of us,
and thus forge bonds of unity, common projects,
and shared dreams. Amen.
* Custody of the Holy Land
By Fr John Luke Gregory, ofm*