Monday, October 25, 2010

An Icon of Life: Two men going up to the temple

Throughout the long and rich Catholic spiritual tradition there are any number of images to describe the “work” of the spiritual life. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, and St Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle all come to mind. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus gives a number of parables which provide tightly-packed images of what He Himself does in human souls, and how we respond, and what the great consequences are.

The parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector is one of these tightly packed images, reflecting three basic moves of the spiritual life, the life of a disciple of Christ. Using and modifying Fr Barron’s three steps (from his excellent “Three Paths of Holiness” DVD—did you see it on WGN recently?), I’d like to look at this parable as a picture of these three steps. Here’s how I see the three basic moves of the spiritual life:

1) Turn to the Lord. 2) Know you’re a sinner. 3) Find your mission.

The first one: turn to the Lord. This is the most foundational move of our hearts, the most necessary. It’s the dirt floor. This is where we “turn”, spiritually, interiorly, from all the good things in our life—including our very life itself—to God who is, even now, creating me, loving me, giving rise to my very existence. In the early centuries of the Church, there was a public call to prayer: “Conversi ad dominum!” Turn to the Lord!

We see this move on display in the two men in the gospel today, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Both “went up to the temple to pray.” What they do physically—physically turning to Jerusalem, to the Temple, the physical place where the Most High dwelt—we are called to continuously do spiritually, just we physically turn to the altar at Mass. This is the deep meaning of our prayer at Mass, when the priest says, “Lift up you hearts,” and we respond “We lift them up to the Lord.” Life with the Holy Trinity is our origin and goal: at this moment we offer our free “yes” to this “direction.” We must strive to turn to the Lord, interiorly, at every moment of our lives.

The second move: know you’re a sinner. Think of the tax collector in the gospel today. He doesn’t even lift his eyes to heaven, says Jesus, yet he says, “O God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Now having turned interiorly to the Lord, the pure Light of God, he sees clearly where he is off, where there are smudges on the windshield. But he has learned a new way of seeing, a vision which sees not only his sinfulness, but God’s mercy and power to heal, implied in his unlimited confidence to proclaim his sinfulness publically.

The Pharisee—renowned as a religious expert—never managed to turn to the Lord interiorly, so what does he notice in his blindness? His illusory greatness, and other people’s sinfulness. He prays not to God but to himself. And his pseudo-prayer recounts not God’s greatness but his own litany of marvelous deeds: “I fast twice a week, I tithe, etc”. He also proclaims the sinfulness of the tax collector: greedy, dishonest, adulterous. He perceives the Tax Collector lacks the three things that matter: hope, faith, and love.

And at first blush, he's dead right. Tax Collectors were notorious for those vices.
But the irony is that the Pharisee is all of these things as well—like the Tax Collector, sure—but he is worse off because he cannot see it. Though he tithes, he is greedy, self-centered, unable to be truly giving and generous in his prayer. Though he fasts, he gorges himself in lies about himself and his self-sufficiency; though he goes to the temple to pray, he commits perhaps the worse form of spiritual adultery: self-adoration. He worships himself. Isn’t this form of idolatry—the terrible closed-circle of self-worship and community-centered worship—among our greatest temptations today?
Humans on earth can't be divided between sinners and saints, but only between those sinners who know it and those who don't (yet). G.K. Chesterton said something much like that.

Finally, the third move: find your mission. This parable may not seem to be a tale of mission, but look--Jesus says of the two men:

"I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former."

To be “justified” means to be untwisted; to be brought into a dynamic relationship to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To dwell in God, which is to dwell in love, and so be healed of our self-adoration. The implication? The tax collector has been healed; he has turned to God, he knows he is a sinner, and now he has discovered his mission—and off he goes! He leaves the temple, exalted as an apostle of God’s power and mercy. He truly “went home justified,” he went home healed; while the Pharisee remains a slave to himself and his lies.

Jesus calls himself our “physician.” Think of these three steps in this analogy: we turn to the doctor’s office, we tell him what is ill, and he heals us so that we can begin to live our lives, knowing and fulfilling His wonderful will for us.

How often in our fear we are like the man—like the Pharisee—who has a massive cancerous growth on his pancreas or liver, and goes to the doctor to brag about his healthy diet and exercise routine. Either this man is delusional, or does not trust his doctor’s skill.

Any of these three steps are happening all the time in our lives; we enter in at any step. Which one are you most in need of right now? Perhaps an experience of addiction has deflated you; perhaps an experience of beauty has captivated you; perhaps discovering that Christ is calling you to the priesthood, religious life, or married life is enflaming your soul with a desire to turn to God in a new way. The "steps" all go together, and form the single experience of our life as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Turn to the Lord. Know you’re a sinner. Find your mission.

1 comment:

  1. Fr. Muir, you might be interested in reading a post by Reginaldus at The New Theological Movement blog site about this same parable. Reginaldus writes about Flannery O'Connor's short story "Revelation" and how he thinks that she is really writing about Luke 18:9-14. His post is very interesting if you are a Flannery O'Connor fan.