Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Teaching the Lord His Own Business

My two older daughters have recently been reading an old favorite book of mine: Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard. I could probably write an entire post discussing the book, but that's not what I'm doing today.

At one point in the book the heroine, Kate, finds herself in a situation of extreme danger; she has essentially been kidnapped, and doesn't yet know what is in store for her. Her captors lead her to a dark room and leave her there for the night:

"Without a candle or a comb or proper nightgear or even a drop of water for washing--she did not dare to try to find the stream in the dark--there was very little she could do to get ready for bed, only say her prayers and slip out of her gown and her shoes. The gown she folded up and laid on the top of the chest, setting the shoes beside it. The prayer she hesitated over a little, and then fell back on the steadying familiarity of her ordinary evening paternoster. She hesitated again for a moment when she came to "Deliver us from evil," but decided in the end not to add anything more to that. "All you'll do nine times out of ten is start trying to teach the Lord His own business," was what her father had said to her once." ("The Perilous Gard," Elizabeth Marie Pope, Puffin Books, c. 1974, p.143.)

I love that last sentence. How many times, when we pray, do we do exactly that--try to teach the Lord His own business?

I can think of the times I've begun to request God's help with something or other, and find myself in the middle of tangled, convoluted sentences where I have done the following:

1. Attempted to explain the situation. To God. As if He doesn't already know exactly what is going on.

2. Attempted to excuse any culpability I have in the situation. Again, to God. As if He isn't even more aware than I am of what level of responsibility, if any, I bear in any given circumstance.

3. Attempted to magnify the culpability of others involved in the situation. "Lord, I know I lost my temper, but surely You know what she's like by now? How do You put up with her, Lord?" Forgetting, of course, that He has to do something much more difficult; He has to put up with me!

4. Worst of all, perhaps, attempted to advise the Lord on what sort of action He ought to take to resolve the problem. In my favor, of course, as if the other party or parties isn't praying just as fervently for me to be relocated to Siberia as I am praying for this sort of thing to happen to them.

God does want us to turn to Him in all of our difficulties. He knows our true needs before we do; He answers prayers we've never coherently expressed, almost before we're aware that we're going to need to ask for His help. He rushes to our aid like the Father that He is; He consoles us in sorrow, and gives us many opportunities for rejoicing with Him in His goodness to us.

But turning to Him in our real needs, and lecturing Him on how He ought to be running things generally, are two completely different things. Approaching Him humbly to ask Him to help us deal with someone with whom we're having problems, and marching into His presence to demand that He force the other person to behave, are, again, diametrically opposed to each other.

In one sense we post-Vatican II Catholics are at a loss, when it comes to addressing God properly, in a way that does not attempt to teach Him His business. The beautiful language of requesting, beseeching, begging was, for the most part, stripped from our prayers, and God is addressed at Mass as if He were the not altogether competent head of a liturgical committee. The verbs we use are mainly in the imperative case: Give us, Lord; Help us, Lord, Make us...Guide us...Direct us...and so on and so forth. The words of respect, humility, and patience, words which show that we are longing for His presence while being painfully aware of how unworthy we are to be in that Presence, the words which illustrate that we know that God is God, and we are completely incapable of teaching Him His business, are, for the most part, gone. Our words of prayer are as bare, ugly, and annoying as felt banners and schlocky music, which we also have in abundance.

The new translation of the Mass, which is in preparation, shows some promising signs of restoring some of that sense of majesty and proper order to the words with which we address our God. Perhaps when the translation is complete, and is implemented at the parish level, we ordinary Catholics won't have to fight so hard in our prayers to refrain from the temptation to teach God His own business.


freddy said...

Oh, I love this! That line from that book has always stuck with me, and even made me grin (or grimace) at Mass, but I've never thought it out that well or eloquently. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Great book, Red! And good thoughts, too. It's too easy to be like Martha (of Martha-and-Mary fame) and tell God what he ought to make others do.