It is much easier to find fault with 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 must first 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 cascade on the smears, smudges, and grime, we actually realize how dirty our windshield actually 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 the more of our sin is revealed.
Jesus invites us to resist the prayer of the Pharisee who prays comparing himself to someone else, refusing to see or acknowledge 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. The focus in all prayer is God.
True humility is brought about by seeing who we are from God’s point of view. 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 in which we invite Jesus to shine his light of love into the inner places of our darkness. When we do, we can embrace our vulnerability, confess our sins, and experience the sorrow for the hurt we have caused. Willing to seek atonement, we will receive God’s forgiveness, healing, love, and mercy.
One prayer I have found helpful over the past few years is the Jesus Prayer. It is very simple. Sit in a comfortable space, take a few deep breaths in and out, then as you inhale recite, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,” and as you exhale say, “Have mercy on me a sinner.” Breathe in the light of Christ and breathe out the darkness of sin.
This practice has been passed down to us from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The prayer ropes are made of wool, usually black, and the one I have has twenty-five wool knots separated by four wooden beads. The bottom also has a woven cross and a fringe representing the mercy of God present to wipe away our tears of contrition. If you have neither a rosary nor a prayer rope, you have your fingers. Start with a set of ten Jesus Prayer recitations each day and invite the light of Jesus to dispel the darkness of your sin, confess it, be forgiven, and begin to experience God’s healing love!