Friday, March 27, 2020

Preview: Prayer and "Profession without Hypocrisy"

It is easy to accuse anyone who upholds a certain set of rules and then violates them with hypocrisy. In one of his Anglican Parochial and Plain Sermons "Profession without Hypocrisy", St. John Henry Newman examines the pitfalls of such judgment even upon ourselves, while acknowledging that hypocrisy is a grave matter and that we should not be hypocrites. A hypocrite wants to deceive: she wants to display a public face of virtue and high standards while violating those standards privately and practicing the opposite vices--the hypocrite is lying. In our common parlance now, a hypocrite would be virtue signalling while "vice practicing" (my neologism!).

Anna Mitchell and I will discuss Newman's insights on this issue on Monday, March 30 in our Lenten Meditation series on the Son Rise Morning Show.

Please listen live here about 6:50 a.m. Central/7:50 a.m. Eastern; the podcast will be archived here.

Newman begins with the fact that all Christians fail in their profession of faith (that is, we sin!):

IT is surely most necessary to beware, as our Lord solemnly bids us, of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. We may be infected with it, even though we are not conscious of our insincerity; for they did not know they were hypocrites. Nor need we have any definite bad object plainly before us, for they had none,—only the vague desire to be seen and honoured by the world, such as may influence us. So it would seem, that there are vast multitudes of Pharisaical hypocrites among baptized Christians; i.e. men professing without practising. Nay, so far we may be called hypocritical, one and all; for no Christian on earth altogether lives up to his profession.

Not every sinner is a hypocrite, however, because that would mean that anyone who professes any standard and fails to uphold it perfectly is a hypocrite, ignoring the fact of human weakness. Such a view would prevent anyone from becoming a Christian, that is, being baptized:

But here some one may ask, whether in saying that hypocrisy is professing without practicing, I am not, in fact, overthrowing all external religion from the foundation, since all creeds, and prayers, and ordinances, go beyond the real belief and frame of mind of even the best Christians. This is even the ground which some men actually take. They say that it is wrong to baptize, and call Christians, those who have not yet shown themselves to be really such. "As many as are baptized into Christ, put on Christ;" so says the text, and these men argue from it, that till we have actually put on Christ, that is, till we have given our heart to Christ's service, and in our degree become holy as He is holy, it can do no good to be baptized into His name. Rather it is a great evil, for it is to become hypocrites. Nay, really humble, well-intentioned men, feel this about themselves. They shrink from retaining the blessed titles and privileges which Christ gave them in infancy, as being unworthy of them; and they fear lest they are really hypocrites like the Pharisees, after all their better thoughts and exertions.

By that Pelagian standard, no one would ever be baptized:

Now the obvious answer to this mistaken view of religion is to say, that, on the showing of such reasoners, no one at all ought to be baptized in any case, and called a Christian; for no one acts up to his baptismal profession; no one believes, worships, and obeys duly, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, whose servant he is made in baptism. And yet the Lord did say, "Go, baptize all nations;" clearly showing us, that a man may be a fit subject for baptism, though he does not in fact practice every thing that he professes, and therefore, that any fears we may have, lest men should be in some sense like the Pharisees, must not keep us from making them Christians.

In The Tears of Christ version/excerpt of this sermon as the meditation for the Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent, a wonderful section on Newman's discussion of hypocrisy, to help his congregation distinguish between that lie and human failure, and his application of that distinction to prayer in the Christian life, has unfortunately been left out because of the editor's desire to keep the meditation of an appropriate length. We read the introduction and the conclusion to this sermon in the book, but I'd like to explore what Newman says about prayer.

So Newman sets out to explain to concerned Christians "what kind of disobedience is really hypocrisy, and what is not" by focusing on prayer: "Now men profess without feeling and doing, or are hypocrites, in nothing so much as in their prayers. This is plain. Prayer is the most directly religious of all our duties; and our falling short of our duty, is, then, most clearly displayed. Therefore I will enlarge upon the case of prayer, to explain what I do not mean by hypocrisy."

He continues to point out the error we can make in reaction to not wanting to seem hypocritical. Just as some state an extreme reaction of delaying baptism until someone is as holy as God is holy (which will never happen without the grace of baptism!), some state an extreme reaction in the practice of prayer:

We then use the most solemn words, either without attending to what we are saying, or (even if we do attend) without worthily entering into its meaning. Thus we seem to resemble the Pharisees; a question in consequence arises, whether, this being the case, we should go on repeating prayers which evidently do not suit us. The men I just now spoke of, affirm that we ought to leave them off. Accordingly, such persons in their own case first give up the Church prayers, and take to others which they think will suit them better. Next, when these disappoint them, they have recourse to what is called extempore prayer; and afterwards perhaps, discontented in turn with this mode of addressing Almighty God, and as unable to fix their thoughts as they were before, they come to the conclusion that they ought not to pray, except when specially moved to prayer by the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Now, in answer to such a manner of reasoning and acting, I would maintain that no one is to be reckoned a Pharisee or hypocrite in his prayers who tries not to be one,—who aims at knowing and correcting himself,—and who is accustomed to pray, though not perfectly, yet not indolently or in a self-satisfied way; however lamentable his actual wanderings of mind may be, or, again, however poorly he enters into the meaning of his prayers, even when he attends to them.

In his exposition of our common failures in praying, both with liturgical and personal prayers, Newman emphasizes the effort to develop habits through perseverance and repetition. First he examines our not being attentive to the prayers we pray, letting our minds wander:

No one begins with having his heart thoroughly in them; but by trying, he is enabled to attend more and more, and at length, after many trials and a long schooling of himself, to fix his mind steadily on them. No one (I repeat) begins with being attentive. Novelty in prayers is the cause of persons being attentive in the outset, and novelty is out of the question in the Church prayers, for we have heard them from childhood, and knew them by heart long before we could understand them. No one, then, when he first turns his thoughts to religion, finds it easy to pray; he is irregular in his religious feelings; he prays more earnestly at some times than at others; his devotional seasons come by fits and starts; he cannot account for his state of mind, or reckon upon himself; he frequently finds that he is more disposed for prayer at any time and place than those set apart for the purpose. All this is to be expected; for no habit is formed at once; and before the flame of religion in the heart is purified and strengthened by long practice and experience, of course it will be capricious in its motions, it will flare about (so to say) and flicker, and at times seem almost to go out.

Then Newman examines how we sometimes fail to enter into the meaning of the prayers when we are attentive to them. He emphasizes that when we acknowledge this failure, it is a sign of humility and a "tender conscience":

Here a tender conscience will ask, "How is it possible I can rightly use the solemn words which occur in the prayers?" A tender conscience alone speaks thus. Those confident objectors whom I spoke of just now, who maintain that set prayer is necessarily a mere formal service in the generality of instances, a service in which the heart has no part, they are silent here. They do not feel this difficulty, which is the real one; they use the most serious and awful words lightly and without remorse, as if they really entered into the meaning of what is, in truth, beyond the intelligence of Angels. But the humble and contrite believer, coming to Christ for pardon and help, perceives the great strait he is in, in having to address the God of heaven. . . .

Again, Newman calls on the Christian to persevere in the practice of her faith in the Church, not try to go alone, relying on her own will, but instead, rely on God's love and mercy:

. . . Truly we are children, and cannot suitably feel the words which the Church teaches us, though we say them after her, nor feel duly reverent at God's presence! Yet let us but know our own ignorance and weakness, and we are safe. God accepts those who thus come in faith, bringing nothing as their offering, but a confession of sin. And this is the highest excellence to which we ordinarily attain; to understand our own hypocrisy, insincerity, and shallowness of mind,—to own, while we pray, that we cannot pray aright,—to repent of our repentings,—and to submit ourselves wholly to His judgment, who could indeed be extreme with us, but has already shown His loving-kindness in bidding us to pray. And, while we thus conduct ourselves, we must learn to feel that God knows all this before we say it, and far better than we do. He does not need to be informed of our extreme worthlessness. We must pray in the spirit and the temper of the extremest abasement, but we need not search for adequate words to express this, for in truth no words are bad enough for our case. . . .

Concluding the section on prayer, Newman brings in the Trinitarian model of liturgical prayer: we offer our prayers through Jesus to the Father in union with the Holy Spirit:

Therefore, when we pray let us not be as the hypocrites, making a show; nor use vain repetitions with the heathen; let us compose ourselves, and kneel down quietly as to a work far above us, preparing our minds for our own imperfection in prayer, meekly repeating the wonderful words of the Church our Teacher, and desiring with the Angels to look into them. When we call God our Father Almighty, or own ourselves miserable offenders, and beg Him to spare us, let us recollect that, though we are using a strange language, yet Christ is pleading for us in the same words with full understanding of them, and availing power; and that, though we know not what we should pray for as we ought, yet the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with plaints unutterable. Thus feeling God to be around us and in us, and therefore keeping ourselves still and collected, we shall serve Him acceptably, with reverence and godly fear; and we shall take back with us to our common employments the assurance that He is still gracious to us, in spite of our sins, not willing we should perish, desirous of our perfection, and ready to form us day by day after the fashion of that divine image which in baptism was outwardly stamped upon us.

In my post on Monday, I'll conclude with the three last paragraphs included with The Tears of Christ meditation as Newman applies the same rules to the Christian life in toto:

I have spoken only of our prayers, and but referred to our general profession of Christianity. It is plain, however, what has been said about praying, may be applied to all we do and say as Christians.

Image credit: James Tissot, "Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees" (public domain)--depicting Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew 23:1-39 or Luke 11:37-54.

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