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Sri Lankan Jesuit writes of prayer, service


For those of us caught up in lofty notions of contemplation of the absolute as the highest form of prayer or for those who believe solely in target-oriented activism, a new book by a Sri Lankan Jesuit theologian calls us back to the early apostolic vision of prayer as service and true discipleship of Christ.

In his recent book, Mysticism of Service, Jesuit Fr. Aloysius Pieris, author of An Asian Theology of Liberation, aims to clear distortions that have crept into some Christian thinking on prayer. He sees no division between lay and clerical levels of Christian life in the New Testament. Denying the distinctions made in what he calls a two-tiered spirituality, with a “lower” form, a sort of minimum necessary, and another for privileged people of a “higher” calling, he believes that the only difference found in the New Testament is between those who are beginners and those who are mature in the life of the spirit.

Pieris examines the Christian tradition in which he is rooted, because he firmly believes that unless Christians equip themselves with an experiential knowledge of their own spiritual tradition, they will not be prepared to “acknowledge, conserve and foster” the elements of an authentic spirituality found in other religions in the way the Second Vatican Council has invited them to.

Pieris categorizes four attitudes to prayer: the self-conscious introverts, the task-oriented extroverts, the people-oriented extroverts and the people-oriented introspectionists. The self-conscious introverts are prone to fold within themselves and shy away from the challenges of social reality, confusing interiority with introversion. The second category of task-oriented extroverts are those who take action but are not people-oriented. These two types have one thing in common: They dread the human in themselves and in others.

The people-oriented extroverts are those who live out a life of service to others but seldom reflect on their experiences. Being extroverts they hardly realize that the light they hope to see at the end of the tunnel is what guides them in their commitment to others.

The fourth type Pieris calls people-oriented introspectionists, who are able to articulate their active lives in terms of an internal focus. He believes that it is this fourth category of people who are most capable of what he calls a “mysticism of service.”

The author mentions examples of “people oriented introspectionists.” In particular, the prayer lives of Thomas Merton and Helder Câmera are accurately described as “peopled solitude” -- a phrase the author borrowed from Câmera himself. They carried the concerns of people even when they appeared before their Lord in prayer. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, also remained in the cloister only physically, her heart reaching out to people everywhere with a glow of love. Two monumental examples can also be found in India: Mahatma Gandhi, Hinduism’s prayerful activist, and Mother Teresa, who practiced and advocated a spirituality of Christ-filled involvement with the suffering masses.

Making a distinction between “acts of prayer” or formal prayer and the continuous “prayerful attitude” of openness to God as informal prayer, Pieris says though Jesus did indulge in formal prayer restricted to a time and place, the “prayer” that manifested his messianic role as redeemer was his obedience to the Father, a continuous struggle to set aside his own will and follow the way that ultimately led to the cross. “That kind of permanent attitude of openness to God climaxing in his life-giving death was exactly what constituted his redemptive act, namely his self-oblation made not only out of loving obedience to the Father but also out of loving compassion for humankind.”

Pieris says that St. Ignatius of Loyola rediscovered for the church the centrality of the apostolic spirituality that St. Paul preached and practiced. In a church that elevated the spirituality of monastics, Ignatius recovered the Pauline spirituality of action. The core of Ignatius’ theology of prayer is that one’s spiritual maturity is not to be gauged by one’s formal prayer but by one’s habit of self-oblation.

This leads Pieris to discussion on the polarity between “seeing God” and “hearing God.” While the Old Testament stressed hearing God, which is tantamount to obeying him, the New Testament has more occurrences of the verb to see. Through the Incarnation, the audible word has become a visible image, and the mouth of God has begun to be seen together with the whole face of God.

In the New Testament the apostles both heard and saw. But Pieris, like Yves Congar, believes that after the apostles, the church founded by them is formed by faith, and that hearing again assumes the key role. As Congar remarked, “Seeing God is to come at the end of time. It belongs to eschatology and will bring history to a close. In the present life, faith that comes from hearing dominates, while in the after life, we shall perceive God through vision.”

Pieris, however, adds this insight: Straining our eyes to see God as our future looming on the horizon is essential for picking up the verbal directions, that we may steer our course toward that ultimate end. This “eschatological vision” must culminate in action-packed hearing or obedience. We are given to see that we may hear.

Pieris sees the source and summit of our earthly life of discipleship in glimpsing the future through selfless service to our neighbor in need. It is in such that Jesus is seen here and now. Jesus, the author says, declared himself visible in his little ones and in every neighbor in need, seeking our solidarity and service as the present-time requirement for our end-time salvation. “The service, which the Word summons us to render unto Christ seen by us with the eyes of faith, is emphasized in the scriptures as the essence of divine worship, a self-oblation constituting authentic Christian spirituality.”

Pieris presents us with a challenge to become selfless in our giving and other-oriented in our prayer lives. True prayer and worship are not possible without service to others. That constitutes the mysticism of service, which combines the finest aspects of personal prayer with apostolic action, inner seeking with reaching out to the most needy, and love of God with love of neighbor.

Janina Gomes is communications manager at the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mumbai, India. She contributes regularly to the Speaking Tree” column of the Times of India, a column devoted to philosophy and religion. Her e-mail address is janinagomes@hotmail.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001