Additional musings on Pope Benedict's writings
E-Column by Bishop Robert Vasa
BEND "Augustine refers to Saint Paul, who speaks of himself as straining forward to the things that are to come (cf. Phil 3:13). He then uses a very beautiful image to describe this process of enlargement and preparation of the human heart. 'Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God's tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?"'
The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined.
Even if Augustine speaks directly only of our capacity for God, it is nevertheless clear that through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar, not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others. It is only by becoming children of God, that we can be with our common Father.
To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well.
In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God - what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment - that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them. "'But who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults' prays the Psalmist (Ps 19:12). Failure to recognize my guilt, the illusion of my innocence, does not justify me and does not save me, because I am culpable for the numbness of my conscience and my incapacity to recognize the evil in me for what it is. If God does not exist, perhaps I have to seek refuge in these lies, because there is no one who can forgive me; no one who is the true criterion. Yet my encounter with God awakens my conscience in such a way that it no longer aims at self-justification, and is no longer a mere reflection of me and those of my contemporaries who shape my thinking, but it becomes a capacity for listening to the Good itself." ("Spe Salvi," 33)
As I continue to read and re-read Pope Benedict's encyclical on Christian hope, I am repeatedly struck by one phrase or another which haunts me for an extended period of time. The relatively long passage cited above is one such phrase.
There are several parts of it which we would do well to reflect upon and allow to take root in our own hearts. The first of these is that wonderful reflection on prayer. "We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment - that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God." How many of the things for which we pray are really indicators of a meager and misplaced hope. Perhaps we consider all these prayers for things to be rather harmless, but the Holy Father indicates that a focus on these meager, misplaced hopes really leads, and perhaps even draws, us away from the very God to whom we are making our appeal. A similar thought is found in the Holy Father's book, "Jesus of Nazareth": "Prayer (and by this he means authentic prayer, not the one born of meager, misplaced hope) is a way of gradually purifying and correcting our wishes and of slowly coming to realize what we really need: God and His Spirit."
Authentic prayer, then, does not focus so much on trying to convince God that He ought to give us what we think we need but rather on purifying "our desires and our hopes." This makes praying much riskier. It is very easy to discern what we want, what would make our here-and-now lives much more pleasant. It is quite another thing to stand quite naked before God and ask Him to tell us what we should want and what we truly need. In a rather stark indictment of our modern culture, Pope Benedict points out that even people of faith do not necessarily want eternal life. He writes: "What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment." ("Spe Salvi," 10)
A further difficulty or perhaps impediment to praying well or praying properly is a sense of our own righteousness. When that sense of self-righteousness precludes the consideration of the possibility that I could be wrong, especially when my opinion is in direct opposition to the clear teaching of the Church then prayer becomes an exercise in further self deception. The Holy Father says very bluntly: "I am culpable for the numbness of my conscience and my incapacity to recognize the evil in me for what it is."
In an era in which praise of the individual conscience has reached fever pitch the thought of being culpable for the numbness or the malformation of one's conscience is a real wake up call. A failure to repeatedly and ongoingly question in prayer the positions and attitudes which we hold closes us off from the real value of prayer.
"When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well."
In "Jesus of Nazareth," the Holy Father talks about this needed purification on the part of the Zealot party members who became Apostles. "For example, how much purification must the zeal of the Zealots have needed before it could be united with Jesus' 'zeal,' about which John's Gospel tells us? (Cf. John 2:17) His zeal reaches its completion on the Cross."
Judas was a member of the Zealot party who was chosen to be an apostle, but he was never able to give up his form of "zeal" in favor of the Lord's "zeal."
Judas was so convinced that he was right that he actively engaged himself in a process of undermining the very one whom he had committed to serve. One could surmise, in his case, that he did not pray well despite his proximity to the Lord. He set his sights on a meager and misplaced hope, and it led him very far from the God whom he thought he was serving.
by Bishop Robert Vasa as printed in the Catholic Sentinal
Some outstanding teaching here on conscience and misguided zeal. This is the examination that the pope has said that we need to make. Have we, as the people of God, drawn closer to Him since Vatican II, or have we, like Judas, set our sights on meager hope, and been led away despite close proximity, as the dear bishop asks? It is time for those bound to be close to Him to ask, and for us to consider our answers carefully. Thank you, dear bishop, for placing the question on the table.