30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 18:9-4
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
While there are many lessons to be learned from the parable of the proud Pharisee and the humble tax collector, St. Augustine offers an insight regarding prayer that we might not immediately perceive. First, consider the parable itself.
The Pharisee, who had lived a righteous life, came to the Temple to give thanks to God. We easily recognize his error in despising others – he considers himself to be holier than all others, his great sin is pride. The humble tax collector, on the other hand, came to the Temple to implore the mercy of God – and he went home justified.
St. Augustine sees, in this parable, a central truth about prayer – “The fault of the Pharisee is not that he gave God thanks, but that he asked for nothing further” (cf. St. Thomas’ Catena Aurea). The tax collector prayed well because he asked for mercy and grace, while the Pharisee prayed poorly because he did not ask for anything. Here we learn that prayer cannot be merely praise and thanksgiving; for, while we are on earth, all true prayer involves petition.
The prayer of petition is necessary for salvation
St. Alphonsus Ligouri, in The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection, tells us that the prayer of petition is what is most necessary in all prayer. More than anything else, the Doctor of Morals tells us, prayer is meant to be the petitioning of graces (and especially the great grace of final perseverance). However, if we admit the centrality of the prayer of petition, it is yet difficult to see the relation of meditation (and the other aspects of prayer) to the prayer of petition.
St. Alphonsus insists upon the necessity of the prayer of petition for salvation. Unless we ask God for salvation in prayer, we cannot be saved – this is the doctrine of St. Thomas, as explained in a post on October 20th. It is because of its close tie with salvation that the prayer of petition is of such great importance. However, St. Alphonsus tells us that we will petition properly unless we meditate on the mysteries of our salvation and adore God’s glory. Without daily meditation on the life, death and resurrection of Christ (and the other elements of salvation history), we will never have the courage to approach God in the prayer of petition. Meditating upon God’s Love, which is revealed to us in Christ Jesus, we are compelled to ask for the gift of salvation with greater zeal, confidence, and humility.
How to make a mediation
St. Alphonsus Liguori offers a good outline for a period of meditation (which could range anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more). The basic structure of Alphonsus’ method is common to nearly every spiritual tradition, though the particular emphasis on the petitioning of graces is particular to his thought.
Introduction (only one or two minutes) – The period of prayer begins with the recognition of the presence of God. He is present both in the place in which you are praying (most especially, if you are able to pray before the Eucharist), but he is also present in your soul through a special mode by grace. Adore the Lord, as you enter more fully into his presence.
Then, declare the purity of your intention – that you intend to pray well during this period of meditation. To this end, petition the Lord for the supernatural light necessary to illumine your intellect in order to contemplate the divine mysteries. Finally, offer a few short prayers to Our Lady, St. Joseph, St. Michael, your guardian angel, and all your patron saints.
The body of the prayer (20 to 50 minutes) – Here you enter into the meditation. This can be the Rosary, lectio divina, imaginative Ignation prayer, or any other method of the Catholic spiritual tradition. The key, for Alphonsus, is that you focus especially on the Love of God which is revealed to you through the meditation. Movements of love are more important than progress in intellectual understanding. Offer God prayers of thanksgiving and adoration.
Conclusion – For St. Alphonsus, this is the most important part of the prayer. It is here that you are to ask the Lord for further blessings and graces – especially for the grace of salvation and all those things necessary for your salvation. Having meditated on the Love of God, you are more convinced of his mercy and care for you; moreover, seeing his greatness, you recognize your lowliness and your need for his grace.
Though this portion of the prayer may not take much time, it is still the most important and necessary aspect of the period of meditation. In simple and heartfelt words, you petition God for the gift of final perseverance, for the graces necessary to persevere in prayer through your whole life, and for the graces which help you to remain in the state of grace from now until your next period of meditation. Moreover, you ought to ask God for all else that you desire – he will not deny the soul who perseveres in prayer, especially when she is filled with great love through meditation!
In this manner, through our commitment to the prayer of petition, we imitate the tax collector, who went home justified – for God always hears and answers the prayers of those who call upon him in love and humility.