Monks pray often. But as we learn many times over, quantity or frequency in themselves don’t equal quality or depth. Neither, as Jesus points out here, do length or verbal sophistication in themselves equal substance in the realm of prayer. Even when the phrases are full of meaning, such as those drawn directly from Scripture, it is possible to come to them with absence of mind or heart, and miss the meaning because something in us is missing.
The Christians at Corinth seemed to go weak in the knees for verbal sophistication. In this slightly odd snippet from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, I hear Paul’s sense of humor and his deep sense of irony. The Corinthians are distractible; they are flirtatious with other teachings, other teachers, and other “gospels” with finer phrases and finer reputations than Paul’s gospel, which can be a bit of a downer. Length and sophistication were these teachers’ specialty: in public prayer, in preaching, and in their long and impressive resumes. Paul was capable of great rhetorical sophistication himself, but the gospel he stewards is, first and foremost, treasure in a clay jar, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Rather than a super-apostle– a term heavy with irony – Paul is a kind of sub–apostle. He’s a messenger on a distinctly downward trajectory, whose “resume” includes only the most ridiculous, painful, and shameful things he has endured for the sake of the gospel. Rather than marrying up in the world, spiritually speaking, Paul has married down… and down and down. He has wedded himself to a Bridegroom Messiah who makes him look like a loser. And that is his greatest boast.
You may be the type of person who crafts words because you love them. You may be that way by temperament; by communication style; by education; by vocational calling; by type of employment; by personal talent; by gift of the Holy Spirit; or any combination of the above. Maybe fine phrases follow you, are attached to your name, or the things you have produced. Maybe they flow from your mouth or pen: phrases with power to express, to articulate, to persuade, and to impress. I have had the privilege to meet, work alongside, and pray with many such people. Sometimes, I am told, I am one of them. A venerable company of monks, past and present, have been just such people.
If you are that type of person, you have probably experienced the occupational hazard – or the temperamental; communicational; stylistic; educational; vocational or personal hazard – of heaping up an empty phrase or two. Maybe it’s a moment when the words sound smooth but ring hollow. Or when the undergrowth of verbiage obscures the path onward or the path homeward. Perhaps they were beautiful, but lacked the gracious editing of the Author of Life.
It is quite easy to heap up empty phrases. In such moments, what hope do we have?
For me, it is the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer that Jesus taught is a simple, supremely effective tool to slice away anything in us that is not humble or sincere. It is the best, most straightforward antidote to all our articulate spiritual nonsense. Over time, it makes us real: real servants of a Savior with substance, which a world full of words desperately needs.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Year B
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