“The Needlework of the Prayer of the Lowly” (Sir 35, Lk 18:9-14) (10/27/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
“The prayer of the lowly pierces the heavens” (Sir 35:17). We want our prayer also to pierce the heavens. What pierces most effectively? It is what is little, simple, and almost unnoticeable that pierces most effectively. It’s the needle that pierces most effectively. Our prayer should be like the needle: little, simple, and almost imperceptible, so fine and delicate is this prayer. Like a needle in a haystack! But also sharp, sharp indeed. The needle pierces the veil better than the bar of gold, no matter how grand and impressive the gold may be.
“The prayer of the lowly pierces the heavens,” pierces the veil to God himself. And when the veil is pierced, what happens? Well, when our lowly prayer pierces the veil like a needle, then, through the pin-hole, a very slight ray of light pierces back from the other side. Right? On the other side of the veil is God’s abundant light, pure and simple. So when we pierce the veil with the little needle of our prayer, a very slight ray of light pierces back at us from the other side. God manifests himself, ever so slightly, a little ray of light pierces through the veil into our souls.
Our lowly prayers pierce the heavens but in return, there is the piercing of the earth by heaven itself. The Lord did not want heaven without us, so he brought heaven down to us, in Jesus, in the Sacraments, in the Word breathing forth Love being sent to our souls even now. So every so often very slight rays of heaven pierce the earth. As our lowly prayer pierces the heavens, heaven pierces the earth.
That’s the needlework of our daily prayer, our daily lowly prayer. That’s the mysterious grace of prayer. As our lowly prayer pierces the heavens like a needle so we also draw the needle back to us, and over time we thread together heaven and earth. That’s the needlework of the prayer of the lowly, piercing the heavens and yet heaven piercing the earth. Eventually with some perseverance, one discovers that the little movements, to and fro, have threaded together nothing less than heaven and earth.
But it’s little things. Needlework involves the little movements back and forth, but over time, something beautiful comes about. It doesn’t look like much at first, but keeping up the little movements, to and fro, we stitch together heaven and earth.
St. Therese, the Little Flower, says with every stitch of the needle, she can save a soul. The needlework of love may be little, but it is stitching together heaven and earth. “To pick up a pin for love, can convert a soul.” The prayer of the lowly pierces the heavens, and in return heaven pierces the earth.
To have our prayer be “the prayer of the lowly” sounds lovely…It sounds very lovely! But how do we get there? Uhh… Now it doesn’t sound so lovely!
The Prophet Isaiah tells us, “Thus says the high and lofty One who dwells in eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is crushed and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the crushed” (Is. 57:15). You see, once again, heaven and earth threaded together by the prayer of the lowly and the crushed and humble in spirit.
It’s also the prayer of the publican from our Gospel today, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner!” A sinner, with a heart made of stone, a selfish heart, a lazy heart, an arrogant heart, a fearful heart, a closed heart, a heart desperately in need of you, O Lord. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
How can our hearts be transformed to be more like that pierced Heart, now seated at the right hand of God the Father? That sacred heart pierced by our sins and now lovingly pierced by our lowly prayers. How can our heart be like that? By grace, grace, grace. And this also means: by passive purification, purification, purification. So we hear from the Prophet Ezekiel, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. A new heart I will give you and a new spirit in I will put within you, removing from you your heart of stone and giving you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:25-36).
Heart surgery is never without some pain. But do you see why it has to involve the small difficulties? Because big things, even big trials, could leave our hearts even more arrogant and more proud than when we began. So it’s mostly the little things, even little trials and difficulties. For, it’s the prayer of the lowly that pierces the heavens, and brings back a little heaven with it.
The needlework back and forth is little, but it’s steady, it’s continual, it’s persevering, and it’s lovely. It is lovely. You just don’t get to admire your own needlework too much. Your needlework is not meant for you to admire at the moment. Your task at the moment is the work of love, the steady, continual, persevering needlework of love, through the little difficulties of daily life.
A Greek monk of Mount Athos, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, can help us here. He died in 1959 and just this past week his forthcoming canonization was announced. We are on the cutting edge here! A disciple of his founded some Greek monasteries here in the US so there is some connection to American soil.
Whatever the case, Elder Joseph the Hesychast once wrote a letter to a fellow monk, who seemed to be a bit of a proud soul and hard to live with. For Elder Joseph alludes to this, I hope with some humor, as he says, “So the Lord heard the prayer of all of us, and in order to crush your proud soul [!], to humble and defeat your anger, wrath, temper, and ego, He sent you a flea—this small temptation—to keep biting you, so that you learn to bear it. He sent “this flea” to bother you, so that you learn to be patient. In this way, your anger, wrath, and agitation are gradually soothed.” He concludes, “One’s spiritual state and the grace he has are testified to by his patience” (pp 64, 6).
In another letter he writes, “When we lack patience, our trials seem greater than they really are. The more a person grows accustomed to enduring them, the smaller they become…Thus he becomes as solid as a rock. So be patient! After many years have passed, what seems difficult to achieve now will fall into your hands, without your realizing how it happened” (71). In other words, the little to and fro of the needlework will eventually stitch together a master piece of love.
And finally, to conclude, Elder Joseph recounts a trial he himself endured that was very heavy. What was decisive was not so much how his lowly prayer pierced the heavens but how heaven pierced his own heart! He says in a long passage, which I’ll end with, “Let me tell you a true story. Once, because of my continual and frightful temptations, I was overcome with sadness and faintheartedness, and I presented my case to God as if I had been treated unjustly. I was complaining because He kept allowing so many temptations to befall me without curbing them even a little, that I couldn’t even catch my breath. In this time of bitterness, I heard a very sweet and clear voice within me say with extreme compassion, ‘Will you not endure everything for My love?’ As soon as I heard the Lord’s voice, I broke out into many tears and repented for being overcome with faintheartedness. I shall never forget that voice, which was so sweet that the temptation and all my faintheartedness immediately disappeared. ‘Will you not endure everything for My love?’” (70-1)