From Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility
The Power and the Ambiguity
What these stories of the desert elders, Ignatius, and Teresa show is a common thread of the tradition: the centrality of prayer to the Christian way of life. The practice of prayer actually is the path to knowledge of God; prayer is part of the faith that seeks understanding. This understanding of prayer has unfortunately been undermined by a false separation of spirituality from theology that began in the high Middle Ages and continues today, leaving devotion privatized and disconnected from a whole life that seeks wisdom. For the desert elders, Ignatius, and Teresa, the practice of prayer was integral to a way of life that seeks true understanding of God and self.
These voices also witness to the importance of humility and discernment in a prayerful life. Ignatius and Teresa experience a kind of conversion that entails turning away from vain ambition and prideful delights. They constantly test their experience, watching for self-deception and error. In the face of God’s great grace, they are drawn to careful meditation on their own sinfulness. So, too, do the desert elders stand guard against the very human temptation to pride and self-deception, the tendency to substitute our will for God’s and forget to pray for God’s mercy. According to Cassian, Abba Isaac puts it clearly: So that prayer may be made with the fervor and purity that it deserves, the unshakeable foundations of deep humility should be laid, which can support a tower that will penetrate the heavens.
The streams of tradition show too that although solitude can deeply nourish prayer, Christian prayer is not private in the sense of being disconnected from a community. Even the desert solitaries gathered for communal prayer in the liturgical tradition of the church. Christian prayer takes place in a web of relationships and ultimately is rooted in the life of the church. For Ignatius, this entails absolute agreement with the teachings of the church. Others, such as Teresa of Ávila, stand more precariously on the margins of the church, but still deeply woven into its fabric.
At the same time, these ancestors in the faith also sometimes reveal an unfortunate devaluing of the world that works its way into many spiritual writings in the Christian heritage. In part, this is a contemporary misunderstanding of the meaning of detachment. Many spiritual writers underscore the importance of stepping back from our relationships and everyday pursuits so as to make sure that our desires are properly ordered. This need not be a rejection of ordinary life but instead a way of gaining perspective, checking our tendency to rush into our own plans, and remembering that ultimately all of life is under God. However, the tradition too often describes prayer and holiness as a gift that takes one out of the world, directing one’s love exclusively to God rather than the world, as if it were an either-or. This is, I would say, a false understanding of God’s relationship to creation and of the human vocation. The ambiguity of the tradition around the relationship between prayer and life in the world adds to contemporary confusion about spirituality, and this legacy has left us with enduring understandings about how we may practice our faith.
Yet when we look carefully at the tradition, we do find great contemplatives who show that the life of prayer can lead to compassionate and visionary action in the world. Action frequently takes the form of acts of charity (Francis of Assisi caring for the poor, Catherine of Siena tending to the sick). The connection between prayer and works of mercy is well established in the tradition. Less noticed, less explored, is the connection between prayer and action for social change, particularly such as we would confront in a contemporary political context. How might prayer flow from, ground, or shape a prayerful engagement with complex social, political, and economic situations? We move forward now to explore just such dilemmas in their concreteness, keeping our eye on how the tradition may be brought creatively into the dialogue.