Praying Shamelessly

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I tell you, even if he does not get up and give it to him as a friend, because of the man’s shamelessness he will get up and give him whatever is needed.

Luke 11:8

Today we read from Luke’s gospel the familiar story of the person who goes to ask three loaves of bread from his friend in the middle of the night. Anyone of us who has been disturbed after settling down for the night can understand the reaction of the friend who is being importuned. There’s a time and a place for anything, including the demands of friendship! It is often social conventions that determine our sense of responsibility toward others and our reactions to their demands on us.

It is precisely the lack of social propriety that distinguishes the persistent request of the person asking for the bread. The Greek word that Luke uses to describe this person is anaideia, which Luke Timothy Johnson translates as “shamelessness.” As Johnson writes: “The anaideia is shown not only by the effrontery of making a demand in the middle of the night, but also of refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer.” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 178)  Is some degree of “shamelessness” a requisite attitude for prayer?

As one advancing in age and with a family history of Alzheimer’s Disease, I cannot avoid the occasional concern of “becoming a burden to others” as I age and diminish. Particularly in western culture where the bonds of family are have become weakened and the value of independence is over-emphasized, the natural human fears about our significance to and place in the lives of others when we need to be taken care of are heightened. It is truly shameful for us to be a disturbance to the independence and self-rule of others. It is only children who are expected, and even allowed, to be dependent on others — and even that becomes largely limited to the nuclear family.

Admittedly our world is very different from the world of Luke, where the convention of friendship was that “friends hold all things in common.” Yet, if the one who is asking for the bread is shameless in the Hellenistic world of Luke, how much more so in ours. Perhaps for us, shame is, in fact, one of the greatest obstacles to prayer. Today’s gospel tells us “everyone who asks receives . . . who seeks finds . . . who knocks will have the door opened.” The parable, however, tells us that the nature of the asking, seeking, and knocking must be “shameless.” In true prayer, we don’t ask because it would be nice to have something. We ask because we are desperate for God’s love and mercy. We cannot feed ourselves and our friends without God’s gift. As the person in the parable, it is night and we lack the very means of life and friendship.

Most of us can remember experiences, especially of early adolescence, when we were convinced that we would never have a place with others in the world, that we would somehow always be alone. At those times we struggled to keep at bay the feelings of shame that suggested to us that we could never be accepted and received into the lives and love of others. In time, of course, we develop ways of being and acting that create for us a place of acceptance and respect in the world. Yet, beneath it all there always remains the doubts and fears of our worth at those moments when our lack and dependence is at the fore. This is our time in the middle of the night, with guests at our door, and no bread for them. True prayer is when we ask, seek, and knock from such a place of shamelessness. The great act of faith is to trust that when all that we do to make ourselves someone in the world is stripped away, there is the love of God that will sustain us if we but ask, seek, and knock without shame.

There is a deeply ingrained tendency, however, to recoil from our own brokenness, to judge it as others have judged it, to loathe it as we have been taught over a lifetime to loathe it. In doing this we avoid what God in Christ draws close to and embraces. Thomas Merton expresses this movingly. “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves—on the contrary, he has identified himself with what we resent in ourselves, for he has taken upon himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins. . . . We will never find  peace if we listen to the voice of our own fatuous self-deception that tells us the conflict has ceased to exist. We will find peace when we can listen to the ‘death dance’ in our blood, not only with equanimity but with exultation because we hear within it the echoes of the victory of the Risen Savior.” (Monastic Journey, p. 102)  God meets the human condition where it stands most in need, in its poverty and brokenness, and as we make our pilgrim way along the path of contemplation, we will certainly meet, as Merton puts it, “what we resent most in ourselves.”

Martin Laird, OSA, Into the Silent Land, pp. 120-121

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