During our October 2012 monthly meeting of IVC volunteers at the Washington Jesuit Academy, Ginny, our wonderful facilitator, asked us: What is your favorite prayer? We went around the large table in our meeting room quickly and everyone mentioned one or two prayers, without further elaboration. A great variety of prayers were mentioned. On impulse, I mentioned two biblical statements: (1) the “body is the temple of the living God” (1 Corinthians 6:19) and (2) “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28).
Afterwards, I began mulling over this question: Why are these two prayers so meaningful to me? The most important part of the answer is that, although in different ways, they each give me a strong sense—a feeling, not just a thought—of God’s presence in my life. In fact, isn’t our Divine, Sacred Source the True or Real Self? Saint Augustine said: “God is more intimate to me than I am to myself” or “more me than I am myself.”
Another part of the answer to my own question, however, relates to the practice of daily reflection. Reflecting on one’s life—in an effort to increase self-awareness and gain spiritual insight—can be a wonderfully beneficial practice, I believe. But, for some of us, depending on how it is practiced, daily reflection on our failings and shortcomings might sometimes seem a little like self-flagellation, making us feel defensive.
Why would this be? Well, if I’m reacting defensively to awareness of my flaws or imperfections, doesn’t this indicate that I’m trying to protect my false self? (“False self,” here, refers to one’s “masks,” whatever illusions, pretensions, vanities, etc., we mistakenly try—consciously or unconsciously—to convince ourselves or others are our True or Real Self). In other words, is defensiveness merely an effort at “false self” protection?
If so, why should we waste time defending the false self? Does such defensiveness indicate—to those of us who tend to experience it, either in the process of living our daily lives or when reflecting on them—that too often we’re living in the illusion of separateness from our True or Real Self? Wouldn’t it be better to recognize that, as Erasmus taught, “Humility is truth” and that “In and of myself I can do nothing…” (John 5:30), “…but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26)? We can find our true worth in God’s presence, inherent deep within every soul.
It seems to me that this perspective can, among other things, counterbalance that sense of defensiveness and, perhaps, other subtle or not-so-subtle forms of self-inflicted suffering. Moreover, such prayers can nurture in us a growing sense that our deepest spiritual self, our “True Self,” is in God. So, and this is my main point, while it is good to be readily conscious of our faults, shortcomings, etc., and especially our need for humility, shouldn’t we simultaneously seek to sustain the sense that our loving God is not only transcendent but also immanent: always within each of us? Or are we “willing” to live like Tolstoy’s legendary beggar, unaware that we are “sitting on a pot of gold”?
In the spiritual classic: The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence says the worst thing that could happen to him is to lose the sense of God’s presence. Can living with a sense of God’s presence liberate us from defensiveness so that we seek whatever truth we can find in criticisms we receive, from ourselves as well as others?
Finally, what is your response to Ginny’s question: “What is your favorite prayer?” And, why?
Kevin Tansey is a retired federal employee and an IVC volunteer, serving in his eighth year at DC Central Kitchen. He is also a member of IVC’s Board of Directors.