It often seems that today’s Christians also think that it is permissible to create divisions in the Church, the Body of Christ, to celebrate the Eucharist without looking after the neediest of our brothers, to aspire to better charisms without being aware that each is a member of the other, and so forth. The consequences of a faith that is not manifested in love are disastrous.
–Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, November 26, 2008
The three words in the English language that I find the sweetest are these: you are right. I am someone who loves to win arguments, and I love to be right. I love justice, and I love being on the right side of justice. So I can very easily become too desperate to be proved right; become far too eager to prove my own righteousness.
Then, I will glance up at a crucifix and instantly feel how foolish I am. Looking at the crucifix is one of the greatest reminders of how unimportant our human arguments and debates are. That God there on the cross died for me; and He also died for the person with whom I am arguing. Truthfully, He doesn’t much care which one of us is right, which of us is wrong. I may care very deeply about being right, but God doesn’t really care a bit. He loves our opponent just as much as He loves us.
This is why I love Christ’s command to, when approaching the altar of the Lord, “first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:25)” Prayer has the power to break us out of our human feuds and fits of emotion. If you’re really, really angry at someone, the last thing you want to do is pray with them, naturally. Because you just simply can’t raise your pious heart up to God together while you harbor feelings of deep ill will towards your neighbor.
You cannot seek to unite yourself to Love Himself while harboring feelings of hate. It is such a glaring hypocrisy, that no matter how much I tend to ignore the beam in my own eye, and point out the speck in my neighbor’s, even I cannot overlook that one.
I remember one time a director who was one of the most frustrating, difficult, and usually objectively wrong people I have worked with, stopped the cast of our play, gathered us all together, and suggested—demanded, really—that we all pray together. I remember how I felt a pit of bitterness inside my soul revolt against the demand, even as I knew I should be responding with delight.
I love praying with a community, particularly with a cast about to do a performance. Prayer and theatre have always been linked together in my heart. Half the task of an actor is over before they arrive on stage. For a large part of the actor’s work each evening is to prepare for the performance. As you enter into the theatre, you begin to run through your lines, warm up your voice, walk through the show, almost unconsciously, in your mind.
There is so much ritual to complete before the show begins.
But the penultimate act you perform before heading onstage is signing yourself with the cross, taking a deep breath, and making sure your first words are on the tip of your tongue, ready to roll off into the sawdust-y atmosphere.
Before a performance, one rarely has the luxury of praying all together. It is usually something one does alone, sitting on a flight of rickety stairs, waiting behind flimsy scrims, resting your cheek on the rough backside of the velvet curtain; your ears straining for the sound of your cue, your heart silently invoking heaven.
It is a rare joy to join hands with your fellow actors and offer up a prayer together.
But not that day.
I did not feel joy, and I did not want to pray with that man.
I’d spent the last hour letting self-righteous frustration build up inside of me as I counted each of his errors, and tallied up all of the grievances I’d endured. It is sometimes much easier to nurse our wounds than heal them.
And I knew that if I joined hands with this human being and offered up a prayer with him, I would have to forgive him the numerous grudges I was holding against him.
I could feel my heart cling desperately to every last one of them, as we all circled together and joined hands. I could feel my body stiffening all over, as every muscle in my body resisted the pull of grace.
I clasped the hand of my friend next to me, and closed up my eyes and my mouth in a tight seam.
Our director, with whom I had been so angry, began to pray, and I was struck by the knowledge that this man was calling upon the same God I do, and that, here in that room which was festering with bitterness, the same Spirit and same grace that I called upon in Mass that morning were present there in that room.
And God heard this man whom I disliked so much—God even liked this man. And, in his prayer, this man was heard every bit as much as I am in my prayer. And, in fact, the person who was “in the wrong” here was me, who was harboring anger and resentment against a fellow brother in Christ.
The man said very simple words that many generations of Christians have said for many years—nothing special. But when he said: Come, Holy Spirit, I felt something stony inside of me—perhaps it was my pride—splinter and crack.
I had to let go of all the bitter baggage I so desperately desired to hold onto, but those words and that prayer pried it out of my hands as firmly and as sternly as a mother pulling her toddler’s fingers off of forbidden candy they have grasped.
It loosened up a space my heart, and I found that there was a space inside of me—there was common ground between this man and me—where I could lift up my voice in praise of God with his.