The Word Embodied
Prayer of Faith
“I have something to propose to you.”
I once thought the most boring parts of the scriptures were the overt stories and parables. I was drawn, rather, toward those parts of the holy writings which were outright commands or at least recommendations. These moral statements were clear and direct. They were stirring. They challenged one's idealism. They revealed the way one should live.
I eventually happened upon a spiritual director who refused to allow me to apply the scripture as a map for my journey. In the retreats I made with the late Paul Quay, a Jesuit priest, he told me not to apply any of the scriptures directly to my life or the issues which I thought were most important to me.
“Just look at the text in faith. Ponder it but do not apply it to yourself in any way. Listen to it. Observe it. Give yourself to the story. See if you can confirm what is going on. Witness it. Affirm in faith that you believe the truth of the passage; that is enough. And, only if there is something that emerges from the story that moves you, let it happen.”
It was a frustrating venture. I liked the moralisms and the challenges straight and pointed. Yet my director would not let me apply the stories to my life. “Keep yourself out of it,” he said, “unless it breaks into you.”
Despite my initial resistance, I found a secret wisdom in this prayer in faith. And it was revealed in the very methodology of the scriptures.
The prophet Nathan went to David, not with an indictment, but with a story. Since it was a parable, David was not on his guard as he listened to the tale.
There were two men. One was rich and the other poor. The rich man, despite the great number of his abundant flock, gave to a traveling visitor, not one of his own sheep, but the prized single lamb of his poor neighbor.
David was outraged at the story. He demanded that the offender give restitution or even be put to death. Only then did the prophet tell him that the story was about himself. And only then was David able to see his crime against his friend Uriah, whom he had murdered, and his wife Bathsheba, whom he had taken as his own. In the story repentance was achieved.
Our resistance to repentance parallels our resistance to love. If we experience ourselves unable to fully trust that God could unconditionally love us, the indirect method of parables sometimes is the most effective strategy to help us accept the mystery of our own redemption.
In the Gospel story, the way that Jesus chose to unmask the self-righteousness of the Pharisee was to tell a story. He did not directly challenge his host, who was scandalized by the sight of a sinful woman cleaning the Lord's feet. Rather, he told the tale of a debtor who was forgiven great debt.
Only then did he directly address the host with the reality of his situation. While the host had done nothing but condemn a poor sinner, that very sinner had knelt before Jesus, washed his feet, dried them with her hair—all because of her great love.
We often see the truth better in the stories of others than we do in ruminations about how well or how poorly we are doing. Whether we are people who judge or are people who think we are hopelessly sinful, we must enter the parables of Jesus, as with all scripture, with the prayer of faith that my old director recommended.
If we give ourselves to the mystery revealed therein; if we come to say, “Yes, I believe that you could love her in such a bountiful way,” we might then hear the words spoken to us that were once said to David. “The story is about you.”
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University