5 - Worship As Freedom
"Freedom is the awareness of our dependence on God, the reliance on his love for us, the experience of his familiarity, the wonderment at all he has given us".
When we look for the right posture in prayer, when we want to learn how to be introduced into Jesus’ own prayer, that is into his own relation with the Father, we are invited not to look at ourselves but at him. Spiritual tradition is unanimous on this point: Christian life consists in striving to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We must forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead, press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us.
Thus, when we hear Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven it is to Jesus we have to turn if we want to see what this means. This kingdom is Jesus himself, not only what he does, but what he is; this kingdom is the Father’s intervention in the history of the world, in the history of my life, to change it once and for all, through Christ, and it is this that we pray for in the Our Father, when we say the words Your kingdom come.
The kingdom of God becomes ours, i.e. we correspond to God’s decisive intervention in history by being poor in spirit. ‘Poverty’ here does not mean ‘destitution’. More than a condition it is an awareness; this is why it is called poverty of spirit. It is the deep, trusting, joyful awareness of our total dependence on God. Not a grudging addiction to someone who takes advantage of this to diminish, enslave and humiliate us, but the grateful reliance on a Father who gives us everything and desires nothing in return other than our fulfilment, by which he is glorified. It is the grateful familiarity Adam and Eve experienced when God went to stroll with them in the cool of the evening just to enjoy their company and rejoice in their wonder at all the beauty of the creation with which he had surrounded them.
What a wonderful posture this is for our prayer! Poverty of spirit, the awareness of our dependence on God, the reliance on his love for us, the experience of his familiarity, the wonderment at all he has given us. The more we grow into this poverty of spirit, the more we become children of God. And prayer is necessary here because this dependence, this reliance on the Father, do not come naturally to us any more. The serpent instilled in us a radical doubt about God’s good intentions, he damaged our trust in the Father and left us with the idol of a god who created us only to enjoy his superiority over us, while secretly afraid of us: ‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ However much we might trust God, however much we may have experienced his love in our lives, this doubt lurks in our hearts and raises its poisonous tail whenever we face trials, difficulties and setbacks, whenever we journey through a godless desert.
Just as he did in the garden, the serpent speaks to us in these deserts; once again he insinuates doubt in our heart and persuades us to put God to the test. This is why the desert is so expedient a place for prayer. Not because of its peace and its silence, but because it confronts us with this persistent inner voice that keeps hissing its suspicion and distrust. The desert is expedient for prayer because there our idolatry cannot remain hidden any longer, and if we do not want to yield to it the only weapon at our disposal is recourse to the Father – calling patiently, doggedly: Our Father, your glory, not my glory; your kingdom, not my kingdom; your will, not my will.
The desert nurtures prayer because it unmasks what lies in our heart, but also because there we learn that the Father does indeed take care of us:
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart . . . He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years.
Prayer, like the time spent by the people of Israel in the desert, is the time, the place, the space where we are humbled, where we are shown what is in our hearts, and where we are also fed so that we can learn, little by little, that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. In this desert we are taught the right posture in our relation with the Father. It is Jesus who teaches it to us. We are not alone in this desert because he went there ahead of us and opened up a way for us; he forced the serpent to spit out its venom and gave us the antidote.
By teaching us the Our Father, Jesus prevents us from falling into the trap of the devil’s twisted understanding of sonship and introduces us into his own loving, trusting relationship with the Father. Praying the Our Father in this way we learn to be poor in spirit and we discover the happiness, the blessing attached to it: Blessed are the poor in spirit! When we pray the Our Father in this way, in Jesus’ wake, then the kingdom of God is ours, that is, we actively and effectively contribute to the hallowing of the Father’s name, to the coming of his kingdom and to the fulfilment of his will, on earth as it is in heaven.
Prayer stemming from this posture, from poverty of spirit, is the kind of worship the Father seeks, the only worship that pleases him, the worship in spirit and truth that Jesus came to inaugurate on earth. It is the worship we have access to once Jesus has driven the serpent away: Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ We want our prayer to grow into this worship. We want our worship to be free.