Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Praying the Parables

In my wretchedness, I have fallen among the thieves of my own thoughts. My mind has been despoiled, and cruelly I have been beaten; all my soul is wounded, and stripped of the virtues I lie naked upon the highway of life. Seeing me in bitter pain and thinking that my wounds could not be healed, the priest neglected me and would not look at me. Unable to endure my soul- destroying agony, the Levite when he saw me passed me by on the other side. But Thou, O Christ my God, wast pleased to come, not from Samaria but incarnate from Mary; in Thy love for mankind, grant me healing and pour upon me Thy Great Mercy.
First verse of the "Lord I have Called" for Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday of the Fifth week of Lent.

In the Orthodox Church we often pray the Parables of Christ.  Here's another example from the 24 verses of repentance written by St. Symeon the Translator and read also at the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday of the Fifth week of Lent:

Like the foolish servant, I have hidden the talent that was given to me and buried it in the ground. I have been condemned as useless, and I no longer dare to ask Thee for forgiveness. But in Thy forbearance take pity on me that I too may cry unto Thee: before I perish utterly, save me, O Lord.

For the Orthodox Christian who prays with the services of the Church, the parables are not merely lessons in moral theology.  They are also, and in many ways more importantly, windows into the experience of the soul before God.  Through the prayers of the Church the parables become beacons enlightening our inner experience.  The parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, is much more than a mere moral exhortation (though it is that too).  The parable is a paradigm by which I understand my relationship with God and my inner struggles to repent.

When I see myself as someone who has been beaten up by "thieves of my own thoughts," someone who isn't helped by the religious leaders or cliches in my community, someone whose "soul is wounded and stripped of virtues...naked upon the highway of life," when I see myself this way, then I can see Jesus as the One who comes and binds up my wounds.  I can see Jesus coming, "not from Samaria but incarnate from Mary."  I can allow myself to be carried on His beast (which some Fathers have interpreted as the suffering humanity of Jesus) and be taken to and cared for at the Inn (interpreted at the Church with the spiritual fathers and mothers as the innkeepers).

Prayer is an offering, an offering most often of one's self to God.  But this is not nearly as easy as it sounds.  There is no dotted line to sign and thus seal the deal.  Every day we see a bit more of ourselves.  Every day we see a bit more of the wretchedness that yesterday we didn't see.  This is why the Saints, the holy men and women who are closest to God can write such profound prayers of repentance.  Where the light is brightest, the mess is most clear.  You don't see the dirt or disheveled condition of a dark room with only a small night-light in the corner, but as you open the curtains and let in the light, you see the mess.  So too in our spiritual life, as we pray and learn to pray with the Church, the light gets a little brighter.  Then we see a little more.  

Often we see what we don't want to see; We see what we don't want to be true about our selves.  We don't want to be stripped of virtue, and wounded and naked on the highway of life.  We don't want to be wounded by our thoughts and actually unhelped by the very people and systems and cliches we thought would help us.  We don't want to come to Jesus with nothing, and worse than nothing: with the very dirty and messy rooms of our lives.  

Sometimes we would rather not see.  Sometimes we would rather continue wallowing in a dark mess--sometimes because we secretly like it, and sometimes because we think we can clean it up a bit so that we have something nice to offer Jesus, as though God would not love us, would not come to us unless we had something nicer, better, more virtuous to offer Him.  

However, that is the point: Jesus came to save sinners of whom I am chief.  It's the sick who need the physician.  The Good Samaritan comes to the wounded, naked, helpless man--not to the priest or levite.  If we could only see ourselves as the saints see themselves, as the worst of sinners.  If we could only accept the reality of our utter dependence, that we are the servant who wasted his talent, the publican who is not worthy to lift up his eyes in the Temple but beats his chest: "have mercy on me O God!"  Then our offering will be accepted, our plea for mercy.  Then the Good One incarnate of Mary will come and pour oil and wine onto our wounds.

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