But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified.
So were you, like me, introduced to the Jesus Prayer by J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey? Something was happening in the United States even in the 1950's; something we might call spiritual unrest. As I recall, Franny withdrew to her room and began to recite the ancient prayer, a gift from Eastern Catholicism, "Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
Being good enough has never been good enough; and being regarded as good smells vaguely of the Pharisee in Jesus' parable. To the more sensitive nostril, it reeks. Alcoholics especially are often unable to enter a church because of traumatic memories with violent christian hypocrites. They fear the very scent of false piety.
Christianity inherited this unease from our Jewish forebears. We hear it in Hosea's complaint,
What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.Even as we search for that communion which will open our hearts to God we maintain a wary suspicion of our own motives, and those of others. I, for one, would not want to vote for a candidate who claims to be a Christian. It's bad enough watching them kissing babies and wearing flags on their patriotic lapels, but swearing that they always tell the truth and are disciples of Jesus? My vote is too valuable.
I don't believe that faith is a strictly private affair but I do believe the faithful Christian must go to a solitary room, shut the door and pray to the Father in secret. It is there we admit that telling the truth is not easy because we don't know the truth, or we are afraid of it. In that quiet place we realise our motives are sometimes selfish and our piety is sometimes for show.
In that solitary place where no one knows, suspects or even cares what we might be doing, we pray, "O God have mercy on me, a sinner."