What We Are Not
Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. Fr John Farrell seeks a way of avoiding the dangers of being too religious.
How are we to enter the prayerfulness of Jesus? How are we to enter this temple of his prayerfulness along with these two men in today’s Gospel?
Because Jesus is the Temple where heaven and earth meet. There the prayerfulness of humanity to God and God to humanity is like the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Our temple is structured and shaped and coloured by the life and death of Jesus, by his actions and his Passion, by his words and by his silences — the eloquent silences of the embodied Word. How to enter into this in which we are ‘to live and move and have our being’?
There is the lovely story of the earnest Catholic primary school teacher who was teaching this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee to her children. In that characteristic manner of all primary school teachers she summed up the session by repeating the message a final time. To her horror she heard herself saying, ‘And so, children, aren’t we all pleased that we are not like that Pharisee who?’!
We all want to be the publican. We fool ourselves. Anyone reading this web-site is much more like to resemble the other gentleman — the one with religious interests.
How is it — but so it is — that the actual living out of the Christian life can itself be a block to the prayerfulness of Christ which is its source and sustenance? The very flourishing of the Christian life — genuine good flourishing — can itself suffocate faith like thorns choking the seedlings of the Word.
John of the Cross warns against spiritual vices in holy people. Preachers, especially good preachers, are warned, in particular by Gregory the Great at the end of his Pastoral Rule, to return to themselves lest pride in what they have successfully conveyed to others might itself choke off the very same graces.
We are to enter the Temple by what we are not. We are to live in Christ by what we are not. We hear the powerful resonance of Christ’s prayerfulness at the last supper, not only in regard to the fullness of his Father’s will, but also in his love for the emptiness of Peter’s:
I have prayed for you (Peter) that your own faith may not give out. And when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.
We are to enter and dwell in Christ by what we are not. Admitting what we are not is the key to his mercy. Not our successes and triumphs, but our failures and our faults are where he finds us, and carries us home on his shoulders. The publican knew this.
Humility and recognition of flaws, failures and downright sin are not a sign of weakness but of openness to greater strength, his strength. The strange strong royal sovereignty when he stood as a criminal before his judges.
He himself became what he was not. In the incarnation, the eternal Word became what He was not, a creature called out of nothingness into time and place. In the Passion, ‘God made him to be sin, who knew no sin……so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’. He became what he was not in his journey into His fullness. So we can only enter into him by what we are not, as the publican knew.
But our friend and other-self in the parable, and we ourselves in our lives, are trapped into the gravitational pull of our all too heavy self. We cannot pull away from self-referential incurving rather than flying in freedom to larger spaces, travelling more lightly. Within this self-tyranny others will always be assessed and always judged. It is a Black Hole of the self. We enter into freedom by what we are not.
There are two great ‘Nots’ in our lives. We are not God whose will is to be done. We are not our neighbour whose needs are to be met. In the space of these two ‘Nots’ Jesus gives us the graces for our flourishing: