It is much easier to find fault in others, and in some cases, the act of doing so has become entertainment in the private as well as the public sector. Gossip has a seductive allure and can be consuming. Judging others is also a way to justify and or project our own inappropriate behavior onto others. We may even place ourselves in a false sense of exalted pride. Have we ever, not just stated, but, thought or prayed something along the same lines as the Pharisee in today’s Gospel? “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income” (Lk 18:11-12).
To pray any part of this prayer stunts the growth in our spiritual life because we are focused on ourselves instead of emptying ourselves before God. Anytime we rationalize, cover over, or deny our sinful behavior we create and support habits of selfishness. Left unchecked, we can become enslaved to them. Lent is a time for healing and transformation. To be able to heal from sinful attitudes and actions that have become habits, we first must be able to acknowledge and identify them.
Over time, reading more and more lives of the saints, I have come to understand that their recognition and their confession of their sinfulness was not just pious platitudes, but true expressions that they were growing closer in their relationship with Jesus. A simple example can help express where they are coming from.
When we drive our car while it is dark we don’t give much thought to the cleanliness of our windshield because we can see fine. Yet as the headlights from an oncoming car illuminate our windshield we can see how dirty in actuality it is. This can be evident in our spiritual life as well. The more we remain in our own darkness of denial, we feel we are fine, all is right with the world. The closer we grow in our relationship with Jesus, the more his light shines in our darkness, and he reveals to us our sin.
Jesus invites us to resist the prayer of the Pharisee who prays comparing himself to someone else, instead of acknowledging his own sinful actions and instead emphasizes that we are to follow the honest humility of the tax collector, who did “not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner’” (Lk 18:13). Now, Jesus is not saying this is the only way we pray. We have the opportunity to worship and praise the Lord joyfully, we can seek his help in praying for others through intercessory prayer or for ourselves in petitionary prayer, we can also sit in quiet meditation during adoration or out among God’s wonder of creation. Each prayer has its time and place and each type of experience of prayer helps us to grow and deepen our relationship with Jesus and each other.
True humility is brought about by being willing to see who we are from God’s eyes. If we are to set a standard to live up to and if we are to compare ourselves to anyone, let it be Jesus. A daily examination of conscience is a healthy practice and discipline. We just need to be willing to invite Jesus to shine his light of love into the darkness of our fear and anxiety. When we do so, we embrace our vulnerability by taking the risk to confess our sin and to experience the sorrow for the hurt we have caused. With a willingness to seek atonement for our sin, to seek God’s forgiveness, we will receive his love, mercy, and forgiveness that we have separated ourselves from when we justified and rationalized our sin.
One prayer I have found helpful over the last few years is the Jesus Prayer. It is very simple. Sit in a comfortable space, take a few deep breaths and exhalations, then as you take the next breath in recite, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,” and then as you breathe out say, “Have mercy on me a sinner.” You are breathing in the light of Christ and you are breathing out the darkness of your sin. I use my rosary and pray an Our Father for each isolated bead and then the Jesus Prayer on each of the beads of each decade.
Traditional prayer ropes exist from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. They are made of wool, usually black, and have ten decades of ten beads. The bottom can also have a fringe representing the mercy of God wiping away our tears of sorrow. If you have neither a rosary or a prayer rope, you have your fingers. Start with a set of ten Jesus Prayer recitations each day so to embrace the light of Jesus that he may dispel the darkness of your sin, then confess it, and be forgiven.