I believe, O Lord, and I confess
that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God,
who camest into the world to save sinners,
of whom I am first.
Since we do not know how to pray as we should, the Orthodox prayer book teaches us how. The prayer book is a true school of prayer. In this school our invisible teacher is the Holy Spirit, who instructs us and forms us through the inspired (in-Spirited) words of many Fathers among the saints. The more we pray in their words, the more we learn from them how to pray; and the more we learn from them, the more our own prayer — “in our own words” — sounds like theirs.
I am the first among sinners. I have done nothing good on the earth. No one has committed the sins that I have. Like cast-off rags is my so-called righteousness. My sins are more in number than the hairs of my head, the stars in the heavens, the sands of the sea. I am worse than the harlot who came to touch Thee…Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Standing before God in prayer I am revealed to myself not as one sinner among many, but as the sinner, the only sinner. Who am I, the first among sinners, to judge the fifth, the three hundredth, the ten millionth, the fifty billionth among sinners?
Over and over again the prayer book knocks the pharisee in us to his knees—who praises himself, who congratulates himself for being better than other people, who wants to feel good about himself, who “prays with himself.” It places on our lips and in our hearts the words of the publican, that we may be heard in our unworthiness and receive from the super-abundance of divine mercy: Show forth Thy goodness in this way, that Thou hast mercy even on the likes of me.
From time to time the Lord grants me—but not too often, and only for the briefest fraction of a second, lest I be destroyed by the sight—a glimpse into the terrifying abyss of blackness that is my own heart. And yet, and yet…though my sins run out behind me like sand from a damaged basket, I never cease judging others.
And the greater my “moral outrage” at another’s behaviour, the quicker, the harsher, the more self-righteous and self-satisfied is my judgment of him. I have refined pharasaism to an art form in certain cases—and persuade myself that this is acceptable when it involves a “public figure” and my motives are “pure,” i.e., my “concern” for the common good.
Here’s the thing about “moral outrage:” it’s always directed outward, at others; never inward, at myself. “Moral outrage” always makes me out to be the better person, never the other.
The current US presidency has come to me as a test, a test at which I fail every day, and fail all the more because I see my “moral outrage” as a virtue; and even more because I don’t so much as try to see the human person on the receiving end of my outrage—a person created in the image of God, loved by God, desired by God.
Even if I see myself as lower than all but one man, that one man marks the place where I stumble and fall and fail to walk in the way of the Lord’s commandments.
I’m sure there must be a way for an Orthodox Christian to engage politically and work for the common good with clean hands and a pure heart. I haven’t figured out how to do it, though.
Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner.
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