Our parish had the great pleasure this weekend of welcoming a young deacon, Rev. Bryan Duggan, as the guest homilist at all Masses. With Deacon Bryan's kind permission, I post his engaging and inspiring thoughts here.
Throughout these past few years I have learned much about the priesthood, a great deal that I was totally unaware of. One of the biggest surprises is how much eating a priest has to do. Everywhere we go, from weddings to meetings, there's always a big spread. I decided a little while ago that I had to be serious about staying healthy and so I began to go running. Out in Mission the area is still fairly rural and sidewalks are rare, so you do take a bit of a risk when jogging along those beautiful country roads. One day not too long ago I was returning from a good run when I came to a three way stop just down from the Seminary. As I approached, I looked both ways (just like mom taught me) and saw one car approaching, but he looked like he was going to come to a stop in the left lane. So I stepped out into the intersection when he suddenly changed to the right lane and was seconds away from ploughing right into me. I hesitated in shock for a brief moment and then threw myself back and out of his path. He came screeching to a halt several meters past where I'd been standing. As I was picking myself up out of the ditch the guy came running over with a look of sheer terror on his face, and says to me: "I'm a good driver!"
Despite some obvious evidence to the contrary – the fact that he very nearly sent me to the hospital or worse – he claims to be a good driver. This is certainly a bit humorous, and it also sheds some light on a bad habit many of us fall into. We often find ourselves saying 'I'm a good person.' I'm a good person. I don't murder, steal, etc. What we're really saying is there are many worse people out there than me. We're horrified by stories of notorious criminals, like that Canadian Forces colonel, and in some way take comfort that we're nothing like him. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel.
Imagine yourself for a moment before the judgment seat of God. Your whole life is played back before you, every moment of every day since birth. You and Jesus relive every event you've experienced, every joy and every sorrow, every success and every mistake you've made. Every rude comment, gossip, slander, every small item you've stolen, exam you've cheated on. Also unveiled is every evil thought we've harboured, (not those feelings which we do not will and cannot be held responsible) those thoughts we've lingered over; like holding onto anger and jealousy, or giving free reign to lustful thoughts.
After every action and thought is laid bare before God, how can we respond? It is just me and God. There is no one else to point to to say "look, he's a murderer, he's a really bad person!" How foolish would we sound saying 'I'm a good person!' Not one of us can stand before God and say such a thing. Even the greatest saints, whose sanctity seems so far beyond our own, acknowledged their own sinfulness and weakness.
What is the purpose of this? Are we trying to weigh ourselves down with guilt, to feel like we're no good and worthless because of our sins and weaknesses? This couldn't be further from the truth.
Jesus gives us two examples in today's parable: the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is quite content with his life, he is saying in prayer I'm a good person. What this sounds like to God is: "I'm doing just fine on my own." He is closed to God's grace because of this attitude. He's like that fellow that was one day tied to a railroad track. He had been living a worldly life for years, not praying or practicing his faith, when he ran into some trouble and found himself tied to the railroad. He struggled for hours to get free but with no success. Finally he cries out to God and says: "I know you haven't heard from me much, but if you get me out of this I'll turn my life around and become a priest." (This is actually the story of how Monsignor Smith became a priest!) Suddenly, just as a train is approaching his bonds are come loose and he throws himself out of the path of the oncoming train. After the train passes he says to God: "never mind, I took care of it myself."
The tax collector however, acknowledges that he is utterly dependent upon God, that he is weak and a sinner, and in this way he opens himself to receive grace and forgiveness from God, and indeed, Jesus tells us, he goes home justified, saved, at rights with God.
The adventure of the spiritual life is in many ways a journey of self-discovery. It's foundation is true self knowledge or humility. It is not a question of getting down on ourselves about our weaknesses, rather we need to know what the problem is in order to fix it. A doctor cannot heal the patient who won't tell him the symptoms. We need to bring our weakness before God, honestly. We must acknowledging our weakness and our need for God. If we cling to this idea that 'I'm ok' 'you're ok' than where does God fit in? We really have no need of Him at all.
HUMILITY BEFORE GOD FOUNDATION OF PRAYER.
This fundamental attitude: "I have sinned, and I am loved by God" radically reshapes our relationship with God. Before any prayer is a good practice to spend a few moments acknowledging God's greatness and our weakness. It is a great and longstanding practice for Christians to kneel at their bedside and make an examination of conscience every day before going to sleep. In doing so we work to pierce any illusions we have about ourselves and see ourselves as we are, standing totally open before God and asking for His mercy and trusting in His love.
This humility, this true self-knowledge, is the foundation of all sincere prayer. Before we pray, before we dare to address God we must first remember how small we are and how great He is: He is God, we are mere men; He is the Creator, we are creatures. We begin this way because this changes the dynamic of prayer. When we pray we're not casually chatting with friends over a beer, nor are we listing of our requests like ordering our drivethru Starbucks on the way to work. When we pray, we are entering into a relationship with the God who created us, redeemed us, and with whom we are to be happy forever.
If we experience dryness in our prayer. If when we try to spend some quiet moments with God we don't seem to be succeeding at all, this is one area we must first examine. How am I approaching God? Am I truly open to His will, to meeting Him as He reveals Himself? Or am I caught up with myself, my work, my family to such a degree that there is no room in my heart for God? St. Augustine wisely said "Man is a beggar before God." We have nothing of any value we bring to this relationship. If we insist on this, we'll crowd God out. We must strip ourselves of everything when we come before God in prayer: leave behind our artificiality, our job, our possessions, and seek God in true humility, ready to receive from Him.
Such prayer is very powerful. As the first reading has it "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds" and it is heard with joy by the Lord.
We are invited today to seek true humility: in every aspect of our lives but especially in our relationship with God. Humility, true self-knowledge, is not about getting down on ourselves, but rather a healthy dose of reality that gives us perspective in our lives. It is also the necessary foundation for prayer. Tonight, before going to sleep let us kneel at our bedside, and beating our breast cry out to God the beautiful prayer of humility taught us by the lowly tax collector: "have mercy on me, a sinner."