19 November 2007

". . . Not my will, but Thine be done!" (or, "Jesus, Son of David, Have pity on me!!")

As part of a Communion service today, I did a reflection on the readings. I had agreed to do this service several weeks ago since the parish would be without a priest for today, and I first looked at the readings back then. I read the first lection from 2 Macc. where some of the Jews made relatively small compromises with the surrounding culture which eventually led them to fall away from their faith and headlong into apostasy, and I thought, "Yes, people could hear something helpful on that theme. Easy enough to do something on this!" But when I read on, I knew immediately that I did not want to talk about today's Gospel: "Please," I thought, "Not a healing miracle! I can't talk about such a lection!" (If you weren't at Mass today, it was the Lukan story of Jesus stopping on his way to Jericho to heal a blind beggar who calls out to him, "Jesus, Son of David, Have pity on me!!" Jesus asks him in return, "What do you want me to do for you?" and the beggar says, "I would like to see again." Jesus heals him and announces that his faith has made him whole.

Unfortunately, it took some time before I asked myself directly why it was this was such a problem for me, or went back to really do some serious lectio with this reading and the first one as well. When I did, the answer was embarrassing --- and not particularly edifying either, as that old-fashioned and VERY helpful word goes. Instead of saying to myself, "I can't talk about such a lection, " I should probably have said more openly, "I can't talk about such a lection to an intellectually sophisticated, well-educated group of 21st century folks; afterall, does God really work this way in our lives today?" And of course, the answer I implicitly provided was, "No, certainly he does not! He is not an interventionist God reaching in from outside to change the laws of physics and biology. Instead he works THROUGH these laws, he gifts physicians and scientists with the power to make well, and does his miracles in that way!" (Neither would it occur to us to blame people who are not healed for inadequate faith. No, our sciences, spirituality, and theology are more 'sophisticated' than this.)

As someone who deals with chronic illness on an ongoing basis, I have certainly prayed for miraculous healing in the past. But I realized that some years ago I stopped praying for physical healing, and, at least ostensibly adopted Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane as the "way to go" in the matter of petitionary prayer: "Not my will, but thine be done!" There were good and legitimate reasons for doing so: 1) God was NOT healing me or willing that I be healed (at least not apparently!), nor was medical science particularly effective either, 2) I needed to come to terms with the losses and disappointments associated with the illness, and I needed to see the value in it, if there was any, 3) I needed REALLY to bend my will to God's in this, and come to model my life on Jesus' more completely (that is, I needed for my will to be shaped in this way by the power of God's love), 4) I needed to move past any self-centeredness, any untoward focus on self and come to terms with present reality in a way which opened up the future as well. It did not hurt that others seemed to think this prayer of Jesus (". . .Not my will, but thine. . ."), was theologically and spiritually more sophisticated and less naive than prayers for miraculous healing. Nor did it hurt that moving on to this next "phase" of prayer seemed nobler, more pious, and also, that it allowed me to neglect looking at the inadequacy of my faith, or my fear of being completely in touch with how badly I wanted to be healed.

But today's Gospel struck me with what I had hidden from myself, what I had forgotten about Jesus' prayer, and what I knew from my own more profound prayer experiences. First, that this prayer of Jesus was only a PART of his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane; as important as it was, it took a long time of pouring out his heart to his Father regarding what he really wanted, what he was profoundly terrified of, what he grieved losing, and what it was that really made him vulnerable in this world to GET TO this point --- to reach this conclusion and goal of authentic and kenotic living. Secondly, it was only in such vulnerability that he was truly and completely open to the Father's will: only in radically asking for what he wanted was Jesus open to the possibility that God might allow this cup to pass from him, and so too, to the possibility that God might indeed will something different for him at this point in time. And thirdly, that it was only in believing/knowing that God COULD work a miracle right here and now ("O God all things are possible for you!"), that Jesus actually came to know fully that God's will for him was different than this.

It seemed significant to me that in today's Gospel, Jesus does not ask the blind beggar what God's will is, or even what it is he needs. Jesus asks instead, "What would you have me do for you?" Of course, there is no indication the beggar KNOWS his plea will be answered positively in the very terms stated, but there is no doubt he knows his plea CAN be answered positively; what Jesus asks for from him is that he pour out his own heart in the matter, that he risk entrusting himself to Jesus on this level. The prayer of the beggar is indeed self-centered; it reflects his own deepest wishes. It is not cast in terms of the nobler sounding, "Not my will but thine be done." And yet eventually and paradoxically, it is precisely through the beggar's radical self-centeredness and resulting vulnerability that God is truly glorified and the beggar is open to His greater will being done. We do not glorify God if our prayer remains self-centered, of course, but neither will our prayer be sensitive to the will of God, much less glorify him, if we simply neglect or side-step this aspect of it.

In today's first reading Jews compromise their faith and fall into abject apostasy. By leaving behind the practice of praying for healing (in EVERY sense!) as well as failing to believe God COULD do a miracle right here and now, and adopting only the second part of Jesus' prayer, I am afraid I did something similar. In the name of scientific and theological sophistication (and avoiding owning up to the lack of courage and vulnerability REALLY involved in praying for a miracle), I actually left behind an integral part of my own faith and prayer, for from my own prayer I have experienced God's powerful presence, and have been convinced he CAN heal from within our world, from within us, in fact. I wonder how often something similar happens to each of us as we search for and try to adopt an authentic Christian faith in our contemporary world?

We want to have a critical rather than a naive faith. We want, of course, to pray and live in a way that says, "Not My will, but thine be done!" But today's Gospel reminds us that we do not come to this point without painful and risky pouring out of our hearts to God. We do not come to a genuine submission to the will of God in our lives if on some level we have ALSO foreclosed the possibility that God CAN and (sometimes at least!) WILL heal us miraculously right here and right now. Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane IS a model for us, but it is his WHOLE prayer there that is our paradigm. While Jesus' affirmation is our goal, we do not reach it without the neuralgic and sometimes messy egocentric baring of our hearts to him. Only in this way do we really remain open to and come to know what his will actually is; only in this way do we move beyond such self-centeredness and bend our own wills (or rather, allow them to be bent) to his. Only in this way do we come to understand that ultimately, the cry, "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!" IS the prayer that God's will will be done!