Humble Prayer

Humble Prayer

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Finn notes how humility must lie at the heart of our prayer.

There’s no doubting the good deeds of our Pharisee! His fasting, his tithes, are exemplary. Like his prayer in the Temple, they are a public witness to God’s sovereignty over Israel and over his Israelite. What’s more, his fasting is itself a prayer: the Pharisees fasted twice each week in intercession for Israel. And his tithing is a mark of respect both for the priests and for the poor to whom tithes were distributed. Nor does the Pharisee forget to give thanks where thanks are due: he acknowledges that his good deeds are themselves God’s gift, have their origin in God’s grace. He’s not obviously some sort of Pelagian avant la lettre who thinks that he can get himself into heaven simply by his own efforts. And yet, for all this, our Pharisee will leave the Temple unreconciled with God. His prayer fails.

The Pharisee’s prayer fails most obviously because he condemns the tax collector. And behind that condemnation is a certain sort of self-regard. The two clearly go together. In fact they are neatly summed up in the Greek prepositional phrase that accompanies the story’s opening, the fact that our Pharisee stands and prays πρ?ς ?αυτ?ν. The phrase can be taken to mean that he stands ‘by himself’, apart from his wicked neighbour; or it can be taken to mean that he prays ‘to himself’, sotto voce, and ‘about himself’, placing himself at the centre of his prayer. To be self-regarding, or proud, in this sense is to fail in regard for others. It is to isolate oneself from others. The proud and the lonely are ultimately one and the same.

Yet, the Pharisee wasn’t wrong to be looking at himself. Self knowledge is as crucial to the Judaeo-Christian moral life as it was to Socratic philosophers. St Catherine of Siena’s spiritual masterpiece, the Dialogue, opens with an image of the soul dwelling in the ‘cell of self-knowledge’; everything has to start there. The problem is that the Pharisee wasn’t looking hard enough. The difficult challenge is to recognize both our good works, our strengths, and our moral failings. In refusing to admit what virtues he lacked, what sins he had committed, the Pharisee failed to ask for God’s further transforming graces.

There is a complacency here which refuses to take seriously a vocation to that holiness which is God’s own life, a perfection which is God’s perfect love: ‘be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’. The modern inability to think hell conceivable on the part of a just and loving God derives, at least in part, from a refusal to think hard about what it must be like to live with God, in His good company, by His charity. Perhaps we do not consider how much in us must change by the grace of Jesus Christ. Worse, we are deeply insecure at this prospect, because such change is a kind of death, a death of that habitual self with which we at ease.

Lack of self knowledge was also what enabled the Pharisee to make the fatal comparison between himself and the tax collector: he failed to see that they were both fellow sinners; both stood in need of God’s mercy. Comparing his own good deeds with the other’s sins allowed for contempt to take the place of love. St Augustine once commented on this Gospel scene that God is better pleased with humility for our sins than pride at our good deeds. After all, the tax-collector has done real wrong and knows it; but in his sorrow he cries out for the mercy of God, and receives it.

Admittedly, there is still a false humility to avoid. It is not part of humility to be a doormat, to let others get away with injustice towards us, to be put down unfairly. And worse still are those who, like Uriah Heep, pretend to be ‘umble, in order to ingratiate themselves, but behind whose pretence lies ruthless ambition. Nor is humility a matter of dressing up by dressing down, like Marie-Antoinette, dressing as a milk-maid at the court of Versailles. The English Romantic poet, Coleridge, composed with Southey ‘The Devil’s Thoughts’:

He saw a cottage with a double coach-house,

A cottage of gentility;

And the Devil did grin, for his darling sin

Is pride that apes humility.

True humility, then, is that self-knowledge which acknowledges our individual gifts, our common weakness and the majesty of God. It is thus compatible with a real Christian confidence. This is, above all else, a confidence in God, one that looks to His providence and grace. It recognizes the desire of God in Christ to make good what is still wrong – even still vicious. In that matrix we can then have a real self-confidence in our particular strengths which are genuine enough. St Paul, you will have noticed, in that second reading, isn’t exactly slow to state his achievements! It may not indeed be a genuine letter of Paul, but its reception into the canon of the New Testament allows us to recognize the virtue of an apostle writing in that way.


Readings: Ecclesiasticus 35:15-17,20-22|2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18|Luke 18:9-14

fr Richard Finn OP is Director of the Las Casas Insitute of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.