On the Publican’s Prayer of the Heart

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Ash Wednesday, 2021

We hear from Saint Paul an invitation to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Here Paul refers to our discipleship, our journey into deeper relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. A part—in fact a very significant part—of our running with perseverance this race is, as he writes just before that, realizing that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Paul here refers to both senses of the term “saints”: with a lowercase “s” meaning all baptized Christians; and the capital-s, which are the martyrs, confessors, and fully sanctified Christians whose witness to the Gospel of Christ is commemorated over the course of the Kalender (which one such feast in one week’s time: the Feast of Saint Mathias the Apostle).

And this is important because the Christian journey—the Christian race, which like any journey or race demands discipline to complete—is one we never do alone; there is no such thing as a private Christian, and it is impossible to be a Christian alone in an absolute sense. In our baptism, we are made members, one of another through and in Jesus Christ: and just as the foot has a living relationship with the shoulder, each member of Christ’s Body has a living relationship with all of the other members—meaning, we have a truly living relationship with Saint Mathias and all the capital-s Saints; and a living relationship with all the lowercase-s saints, and this relationship is entirely built on God’s grace and is impossible to undo. Our task with the Saints like Mathias, Mary, Joseph, Stephen, Theresa and all the others, is not to create a relationship with them, but to realize the relationship already given unto us—made available to us—in our Baptism. Baptism establishes our living relationship with all the Saints; learning to comprehend the relationship with the Saints we already have is our task: and all of the Saints are as alive to us as anyone alive today.

I mentioned a moment ago that the Christian race, the Christian journey, demands discipline. By “discipline,” the Church firstly means the life of daily prayer. Just as there is no such thing as a truly private Christian, and no such thing as not having a living relationship with the Saints, there is no such thing as a Christian life that only asks of us one hour per week of our time and attention. Paul’s teaching of discipline, and all the teaching of the Church about discipline, establishes very clearly that the Christian life is an every day religion—Sunday mornings, but also Sunday evenings, all the way through the week to Saturday evening (which is traditionally when time is set aside to examine one’s conscience and be aware of any sins committed recently). But that immediately raises the question, in the broad sense: in the life of discipline, where might one begin?

Just such a beginning is described by Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. We have in Our Lord’s teaching a very clear contrast: the wrong such beginning, and a right such beginning. The wrong beginning is demonstrated by the Pharisee, who in his pitiful attempt at prayer immediately compares himself to other people—embodying the sin of Pride. Not only does he regard himself as better than others, but he things he can thereby order God around because he thinks he can earn righteousness through his works of fasting and tithing. Now, of course, fasting and tithing are holy practices, but they should never be done with any idea that doing them earns us anything. Why do Christians fast and tithe? Most fundamentally, it is to give honor to God, because He is God and is owed everything.

Our Christian discipline should constantly be on the lookout for imitating the Pharisee, because Our Lord is showing He is well aware of a very common temptation in the Christian life. This is why after describing the Pharisee, Jesus contrasts him with the Tax Collector (often called the Publican). The Publican could not be more the opposite of the Pharisee—he looks at no one, stands far off, not even raising his eyes to heaven, meaning a stance of humility. And all he says is: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. It is honest contrition, honest sorrow for sins, and honest petition to God Who always forgives the sins of the humble and contrite.

And brothers and sisters, it is always by the example of the Publican that the life of Christian discipline takes its fundamental root, and it is from the Publican’s example that the life of discipline grows. So much so this is the case that the most ancient prayer of the Church, after the Our Father prayer, is a prayer that includes the most and sometimes all the words of the Publican, along with words from Saint Peter, guided by teaching both of Saint John and Saint Paul. This ancient prayer is called the Prayer of the Heart, and also called the Jesus Prayer. There are variations on the wording, but the basic prayer is this: “Lord Jesus Christ, O Son of God, have mercy on me.” Often it ends “…have mercy on me, a sinner,” just like the Publican’s prayer. This prayer—the Prayer of the Heart, the Jesus Prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, O Son of God, have mercy on me—is not only a simple prayer with simple words, but it is the fundamental building block of Christian discipline.

Allow me to be bold: it is my firm view that all Christians should be taught the Prayer of the Heart, and be shown how to be able to say it all day, every day, in moments that allow it to be prayed—said out loud, or said silently, before falling asleep and when first waking up; in quiet and reflective moments whenever these appear. All Christians should say the Prayer of the Heart—this most basic prayer taught by our Lord as the prayer to gain what is most basic and essential to Christian discipleship: humility.