19 June 2008

On Spiritual priorities and the Lord's Prayer

Today's Gospel included Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer. It forms a kind of climax to texts we have been hearing and reflecting on over the past week or so, the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew's focus on a genuinely spiritual life lived in, from, and for Christ. Yesterday's Gospel included the admonition that we go to our room in secret to pray in secret, and also that our right hand not let our left hand know what it is up to. The idea was that genuine spirituality is forgetful of self, that it "gets out of the way" and lays aside self-consciousness. Today, Jesus (via Matt) provides a model of prayer in which a way to do that is demonstrated. It is a model of prayer in which we concern ourselves first and last with God's own needs, and with being there FOR HIM!

In the first three petitions (and the invocation too, though that is a topic for another time!) we concern ourselves with God's very self (holiness and name refer to God's own self, not to mere characteristics or tags); we ask that he might be powerfully present in our world (because both name and the hallowing he is refer to a powerful presence which creates and recreates whatever it is allowed to touch and consecrate). With the second petition especially, we open ourselves to his sovereignty, that is, to his very selfhood and life as it is shared with his creation. God assumes a position of sovereignty over that creation when his life is truly shared and that creation achieves genuine freedom in the process, but the reign or kingdom of God refers to God's own life once again --- this time as a covenantal or mutual reality. And, with the third petition in particular, we open ourselves to the will of God --- to the future and shape of a reality which is ordered by his sovereignty and fulfilled by his presence.

Now, it is true that God possesses what is called aseity. That is, he is completely self-sufficient and in need of nothing and no one. But that is only one part of the paradox that stands at the heart of our faith. The other side of the paradox is that our's is a God who has, from the beginning, indeed, from all eternity, chosen not to remain alone. He creates all that is outside himself and he summons it (continuing the process of creation) to greater and greater levels of complexity until from within this creation comes One who will be his true counterpart and partner in creation. At bottom this is a call to share in God's very life. In fact, it is the ground of an existence which can only be fulfilled when it shares in the Divine life and God himself becomes all in all!

All of Scripture attests to this basic dynamic, whether cast in terms of creation or covenant. All of Scripture is about God's determination to share his very life with us, and his creation's capacity in the Spirit to issue forth in, or become his own unique counterpart in the fulfillment of this plan. When God's plan is fulfilled, when his very life is shared to the extent he wills, everything he creates reaches fulfillment as well, but it is the human vocation in particular to allow this to become real in space and time. And afterall, isn't this what prayer is truly all about: allowing God's plans to be realized in his creation; cooperating with his Spirit in ways which let his own life be made PERSONALLY real here and now so that EVERYTHING acquires fullness or completion (perfection) of life in God?

Unfortunately, one of the most pernicious problems I run into as a spiritual director is the occasional inability of directees to "get out of the way" of the Spirit or to "forget self" in their prayer. (Note well, I did not say "lose self", for we are not called to lose our true selves, but rather to FORGET self and to BECOME (or find) our true selves in the process!) Prayer (and it goes without saying that I am quite often guilty of this too) seems always to be about us, our problems, our sinfulness, our needs and concerns in ways which contribute to our own self-centeredness. (Let me be clear: I am NOT suggesting we neglect this side of things, but I am suggesting that there are ways to pray about these things which are NOT self-centered.) Because of this, one of the most significant questions I can ask a directee (or myself) when probing the quality of their prayer (or my own!!) is, "what kind of experience was this for God?" Ordinarily this puts a full stop to the sometimes problematical self-centered chatter about ME in prayer, and puts the focus back where Jesus clearly wants it --- on God. What today's Gospel tells us in giving us this model of prayer, is that contrary to much popular thought and practice otherwise, prayer is really the way we give or set aside our lives for another, namely, for God and his own Selfhood and destiny. And while it is absolutely true that in the process our own hearts will and SHOULD be poured out and our own needs met, prayer is first of all something we are empowered to do for God's own sake!

Thus, on this day when we celebrate the Sainthood of Romuald, and especially when we pray the Lord's Prayer -- whether in preparation to receiving Christ in the Eucharist or during Office, etc --- let us allow ourselves to truly be here for God's own needs. Let us open ourselves to his life, his purposes, and his future even while we pour out our hearts to him. Afterall, it is the very reason we were created.