Spontaneous Prayer

by Fr. Justin Huang
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

I’ve said some foolish things in my life. One time I met a woman who said, “My name’s Sunday.” And I said, “And my name’s… My name’s Justin.” I hesitated because I was about to say, “My name is Monday.” She could see that something was wrong and wasn’t happy. I felt badly because she’d probably gone through that before.

We’ve all said and done things that we regret: Swearing at people, lying to them, using, ignoring, embarrassing or making fun of them. What can we do if we never see them again? There’s almost nothing we can do to make up for it.

One of the absolute worst things in the world is when priests hurt people in the confessional. Considering the number of people who go to Confession, it’s rare, but it does happen. I don’t think it’s ever intentional, but happens because of misunderstandings or especially because priests are sinful. I’ve done it, and the weight of knowing that I’ve hurt someone in Confession because of my sinfulness is almost crushing. Parents know what this is like, when we hurt our children through our own fault.

Jesus gives a parable about authentic prayer that provides us with a way of healing. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Lk 18:10-12).

There are four problematic qualities of the Pharisee’s prayer that we want to avoid:

  1. The phrase, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus” is translated by many as, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself,” meaning he’s not really praying to God, but talking to himself.
  2. He compares himself to other people worse than he—what merit is there in that?
  3. He thinks fasting twice a week and tithing guarantee him God’s blessing—they don’t (Scott Hahn, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 140). Good works are expressions of love; they don’t guarantee that life is easier.
  4. We know he attributes his good qualities to himself because Jesus says this parable is for those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Lk 18:9).

The parable continues: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Lk 18:13).

Here we see three insights into authentic prayer:

  1. Did you notice that the Pharisee and tax collector are both standing, the traditional posture of prayer? So, what’s the difference? The interior disposition: One’s proud, the other’s humble. Jesus says at the end: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for… whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14). Humility is what made him ‘justified,’ meaning he’s considered righteous in God’s eyes.
  2. But outward expressions of prayer are important, too! The tax collector stands far away from the temple, doesn’t look up to heaven, and beats his breast, as we do at the beginning of Mass. His exterior expressions of prayer go against what some people say, “I don’t need to do all those Catholic rituals like going to Confession or Mass, or kneeling down, or using beads.” Too bad, because you should. Prayer is primarily interior, but when it’s authentic, it’s expressed externally, just like we do with every human relationship, with words, hugs, and gifts. And we need physical expressions to help us pray: Just as we can make the mind relaxed by relaxing the body, so we can help the mind to pray better when we assume a bodily position such as kneeling.
  3. The tax collector focuses on God, not himself! His simple, honest prayer says he needs God’s help!

These are the three qualities we want to have when we pray: interior humility, external expressions, and a focus on God. And we want to apply them to the kind of prayer that the tax collector used, called spontaneous prayers. These “are short… ‘easy to remember’ vehicles for grace in daily life” (Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life, 26), and whose words contain powerful truths that focus us right on God and His power. And what we do is repeat these prayers over and over again. For example, “Hail Mary, full of grace, help me find a parking space.” Hey, no prayer is too small for God!

The tax collector’s prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” has been expanded into what’s called The Jesus Prayer: “Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” In Eastern Christianity, especially in Russia, this is “the royal way to the life of prayer” because when we pray it with sincerity and are aware of Jesus, it can lead us to deeper levels of prayer (Fr. Jacques Philippe, Time for God, 92). The idea is that we keep on repeating this phrase, not in a mechanical way, but in the way we’d say “I love you” repeatedly to our spouse. This is to become common, not casual: Common means it happens frequently; casual means it becomes unimportant. And the way to keep common things meaningful is to go deeper in what we say. As we grow in this practice, we’ll start praying it while walking, in the car, doing the dishes, in the bathroom, etc.. And then it gets simplified to, “Jesus, mercy,” or just the name of “Jesus.”

Father Robert Spitzer, in his great book Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life, outlines these ten spontaneous prayers:

  1. “Help”
  2. The Hail Mary
  3. “Lord, make good come out of this suffering.”
  4. “Offer it up”
  5. “I give up, Lord. You take care of it.”
  6. “Lord, I accept your forgiveness.”
  7. “Make good come out of whatever harm I might have caused.”
  8. “Lord, You are the just Judge; You take care of it.”
  9. Prayer for enemies
  10. “Thy will be done.”

These examples help us realize what’s possible, so that we can develop our own set of spontaneous prayers. Fr. Spitzer suggests that we build a toolkit of spontaneous prayers specifically for ourselves. One man prays, “Come Holy Spirit, come now, come as You wish,” three times. I often say, “Peace, Lord, peace,” when asking for peace. One person here says praying “My God, my Lord” helps whenever she’s having an anxiety attack.

Let’s focus on the prayer, “Make good come out of whatever harm I might have caused,” because this is a prayer that can help us heal the people we’ve hurt in life. Of course, there’s more to do than just pray, like apologizing and making atonement, but today, we’re focusing on the disposition of the tax collector, and we want to pray like he does.

What this prayer does is it acknowledges God’s infinite power to heal the people we’ve hurt; it says, “Lord, only You can do it. I’m powerless.” It’s an expression of faith that counteracts repetitive, discouraging thoughts: “I’m such a fool. Why did I do that? They must be devastated.” These thoughts may express healthy remorse, but when they’re repetitive and discouraging, then they’re useless. They lose sight of God’s mercy. But this spontaneous prayer fosters an awareness of God, a change of heart.

If you have a chance, do the Marian consecration starting on Nov. 7, 2019. It teaches us so much about prayer! And our mother Mary helps us grow in the humility of the tax collector.

I’ve hurt so many people as a priest that it’s crushing, but God the Father’s mercy and healing are greater than my sin. And I’ve seen it: I’ve seen people I served over a decade ago, and though I hurt them, they’ve forgiven me—God has been working in their hearts! And I’ve seen other people forgive past hurts.

I also know this happens because God has helped me forgive the people who have hurt me! A priest who was instrumental in helping me choose my vocation also once hurt me, and so I never went back to him. He told me stuff that I needed to hear, that I was resisting God’s movements, and he could see right through my rationalizations. But we both knew he was a bit hard on me (because he cared for me and didn’t want me to deceive myself anymore).

Six years later I had forgiven him and totally forgotten about it. But two days before my priestly ordination, he came up to me before a Mass, and said, “Deacon Justin, I just want to apologize…” I said, “Took you long enough, jerk.” Just kidding. I said, “Apology accepted.” I accepted it graciously, thanked him, and didn’t drag it out.

Do you realize that his apology meant he hadn’t forgotten about his sin against me? He had been carrying it for years and perhaps was praying, “Make good come out of whatever harm I might have caused.” And God did. So, if God can do it for him, He will do it for us.

That’s also why that priest is a holy man, a true disciple, and why God touches people through him, because he has humility. Not that he doesn’t sin; he does sin, but he apologizes.

Today, let’s start fresh. It begins with God’s offering us His forgiveness, with our confessing our sins humbly, and then forgiving the people who have wronged us. We’re going to choose the right spontaneous prayers, and focus humbly on God.