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When Prayer is Difficult – A Reflection

October 22, 2022
A brown pelican lifting off from Weeks Bay, near Magnolia Springs, Alabama

Psalm 84 opens with the following verses: How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. (84:1-3) Verse three with its promise that even the sparrow and swallow find a home in God’s dwelling place. Of course, that dwelling place was the Temple. 

In the sanctuary of the house of the Lord one is supposed to find safety and refuge. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sanctuary as a place of refuge and protection. In medieval times, a person who had run afoul of the law could enter a church or cathedral and claim sanctuary. The civil authorities could not enter that space to capture the individual. In the novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo tells the story of Quasimodo the hunchback of Notre Dame and the gypsy woman Esmerelda. Quasimodo brought Esmerelda into the cathedral where she was safe from those who sought to do her harm.

Sanctuary… a place of safety… a place where you could literally in the words of the psalmist, be still and know that God is God… It was this sort of sanctuary where Jesus places his parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee would have felt right at home in the temple. I wonder how many times he had prayed in this sacred space. The words and the rituals were very familiar to him, and in fact I am sure that he had them committed to memory. I guess you could say that the Pharisee was on his home turf. 

Then there was the tax collector. Tax collectors were despised by the Jewish people because they extorted money from them for the empire. The worst of the worst were the Jewish men who worked for the Roman tax collectors. In the eyes of the people, these men had sold their soul to the empire. It appears that he was not at home in the Temple. Cowering in the back, all he could do was beat his chest and say God be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13) Feeling like an alien or an outcast he could barely speak any sort of prayer, let alone the ritual prayers that the Pharisee knew by heart. He definitely was NOT on his home turf!

The difference between the prayers of the two men in the sanctuary were like night and day. The Pharisee feeling assured of his salvation and God’s blessings in his own life was the opposite of the tax collector who probably thought the roof was going to collapse on him at any minute because he had no business being in such a sacred place because he was such a miserable sinner.

As I sat with this parable this past week, I kept wondering what the lesson was for me today. What was the lesson that I would share in my sermon on Sunday? A friend of mine who is a pastor had an earth-shattering bit of news from one of the churches she serves. Two of the core members of that church had been killed in a car crash right in front of the church. She wondered how she could possibly preach her prepared sermon on the lectionary text from Luke considering that situation.

In my own personal and professional experiences, I have been in situations where I didn’t know what to pray or what to say. What could I say to the members of a squadron who had two helicopters crash during a training exercise resulting in the loss of thirteen souls? What do I say a few months later when I was a part of the death notification team who had to let the wife of one of the pilots from the same squadron that her husband had been killed overseas on a deployment? What could I say to a parishioner who had to deliver her stillborn baby girl at full term?

I remember well the anguish and the rage that the young widow expressed as she realized that her life and the life of her four children had changed forever. I remember the anguish and questions of the mother who had lost her child. There were no prayers that I could really offer from any sort of a prayerbook. I simply sat with them as I have with so many others and listened as their grief, anger, rage, doubt, and despair was voice by each one. In my own life there have been times where I didn’t have the words to pray or even thoughts to gather. 

In the parable, the Pharisee was rather full of himself and content with offering up the prayers he had learned. However, the tax collector didn’t know what to say beyond his raw prayer asking God’s forgiveness on him, a sinner. As I consider this parable in the light of the experiences that I have shared, something comes to my mind and heart. Yes, it is about the exalted being humbled and the humble being exalted. However, the Spirit has challenged me to think about the difference between their prayers. It was the raw honesty of the prayer that the tax collector prayed that hit me. The prayer he offered reminds me of the prayer by the psalmist in Psalm 130 — Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice! (vss. 1-2)

Out of the depths… out of the depths Jesus said from the cross My God, My God, why have you forsaken me. (Matthew 27:46) While it was part of a verse from Psalm 22:1 (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?) I am certain that it was a cry of anguish and not a mere reciting of a prayer by Jesus.

In her paper that she presented to the International Thomas Merton Society, Bonnie Thurston shared the following reflection about Merton and the honesty of prayer. Merton says there is only one rule in prayer: “the only rule that there is in prayer is that you never say anything that you don’t mean.” “[E]ach one has to pray in such a way that it is personally real.” ( ) Perhaps that is the lesson we can learn from the parable. Perhaps we are being called to pray in such a way that it is personally real. This has given me a lot to ponder and my hope, dear reader, is that it will offer food for thought and reflection to you as you seek to live, love, and pray.

  1. pynkoski2 permalink

    Michael, thank you. Very provocative, in the best sense of the word.

  2. Our honest cries to God are our truest prayers. Thank you for your reflection and the Merton quote.

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