Therefore everything that you wish that people would do to you, so also do to them. For this is the Law and the Prophets.
As we enter more deeply into the mystery and practice of Lent, we are called by today’s gospel to realize that true prayer arises in us out of our grounding in our own lack and poverty. As we come before God in prayer we are to be one who “asks, seeks, and knocks.” This is not the stance in life that we are taught to cultivate by our culture and education. In fact, at least in American culture, we are raised to deny it. It is rugged individualism and self-sufficiency that constitutes maturity for us.
Jesus tells us that when we ask, seek and knock God will always generously respond to what we need. Perhaps the fact that our experience seems to be that our prayers are not answered is due to the fact that we have failed to ask for what it is that we really need. Are our prayers more determined by our cultural values than by the true needs and desires of our hearts?
In “The Golden Rule” of Matthew 7:12, Jesus expands this summons to recognize our needs before God to our need of each other. “Therefore everything that you wish that people would do to you, so also do to them.” No easier than recognizing what it is that we really need from God is acknowledging what it is that we need or wish for from other people. Adrian van Kaam says that every other person that we encounter in life is an appeal to us. That appeal, he says, is “Please be with me and for me.” In truth, we not only need God to sustain us, but we also need each other. The whole Law and the Prophets, says Jesus as the other great Jewish teachers of his time, lies in our being for others what we need them and wish for them to be for us.
Prayer, and the compassion that is its fruit, springs from the truth of our interrelatedness and interdependence. Every form of human evil springs from the denial of the truth of our interrelatedness. Deep in our soul, we know our need for God. That is the “inner room” where we pray to our Father in secret. The “prayers” that we utter from the more superficial levels of our consciousness is not the prayer that sustains the life that we share with all and everyone. The self-centered “needs” that constitute much of what we call prayer actually distance us from our real life and true relationships with God and others.
So it is that our “needs” are inseparable from those of all our other brothers and sisters. If I pray for safety and well-being for “my family” and do not realize that it is inseparable from the safety and well-being of every family, I am not yet asking, seeking, and knocking from the depth of my heart and soul. If I fail to recognize how deep is my own longing for another to be with and for me, then I shall remain unable to recognize that need and desire in the other.
One of the deepest sources of anxiety, fear, and depression in us is the sense that we are alone and uncared for. Often, however, we think that the solution to this would be for another or some others to distract us from our loneliness and need, to take care of us, satisfy us in some way or other. We are unable to recognize and so to realize that they and we both deeply desire and need each other to be with us and for us, not to relieve us of the responsibility for living out our own lives but to be with us and to accompany us on our way.
Prayer and relationship are not easy for us because of the truth that living out of our soul is to suffer. It is suffering that awakens and deepens soul in us. It is our inherent experience of lack, of aspiring to and wanting always more, that is the source of prayer — and love — in us.
It takes not only self-knowledge but real courage to live from the truth of our own lack and need. It perhaps is possible to stumble through a counterfeit form of life for the course of our years that lives in denial of our need for God and each other. But it is impossible to live the heartfelt, authentic, and compassionate life that is our true and original self without prayer and love. It is difficult to be truly human, to acknowledge our humanity, and to suffer its consequences. This is why, even among religious people, prayer becomes more of a self-designed duty or means of ego-sustenance and comforting relaxation (a place of “refueling” for our own action) than a place of crying out in our indigence and need. Likewise, being truly with and for another while allowing them to be with and for us can be such a painful experience of our own poverty and inadequacy that we replace it with a self-determined “compassion” that makes of others the object of our spiritual or moral superiority.
Today, Jesus promises that God will answer us, providing it is really we who are asking, seeking, knocking, and being with and for others as we wish them to be with and for us. Jesus praises the widow who “gives from the little that she had” and he feeds the multitude with the few fish that the boy brings to him. We experience God’s love and generosity to us when we come to God in poverty of spirit; we are treated as we wish to be treated when we offer to be with and for others despite what seems to us our total inadequacy to the task. We are limited in our capacity for God and for loving others not by our lack and poverty but by our illusion of strength, competence, and independence. This Lent, as our egos weaken may our souls strengthen.
Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.
It is in solitude that this compassionate solidarity grows. In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy, and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart. In solitude our heart of stone can be turned into a heart of flesh, a rebellious heart into a contrite heart, and a closed heart into a heart that can open itself to all suffering people in a gesture of solidarity.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, pp. 24-5