“O God, be merciful to me the sinner!” Such are the words of the rich publican, drawn from St. Luke’s Gospel used by the Church today. These eight words, so well known, form perhaps one of the most profound, yet also one of the easiest prayers to say.
How is this so? The truth is that in just eight words, there are multiple aspects of Catholic spirituality which are represented, when the words are prayed properly. The phrase begins with a heartfelt, and pious appeal to the Almighty, made not out of haste or presumption, but out of humility. This same humility is that which is constantly evident in the life of Mary, and which moved her to utter her fiat to the will of God as revealed to her by the angel. She willed for nothing other than to perform the will of God, and so humbly united her will to His. It is so with the publican’s prayer, for he comes before God with a heartfelt desire to unite himself to the Divinity and to obey His commands.
“Be merciful to me the sinner!” This phrase is awash with sentiments which echo the brief aspirations which St. Thérèse advocates in her Little Way spirituality, in order to be able to easily dedicate the day to God. The words reveal first of all the publican’s realisation of his own state, that of being sinful. He knows that in himself he is nothing, and identifies his actions with sins, calling himself “the sinner.” Indeed, but for the grace of God, such is the state of fallen man, who is apt for nothing but to commit sin and to indulge his fallen passions.
The publican also reveals his understanding of God as One whom he can turn to for aid, despite his own sinful countenance. He knows that it is only God who can heal him, guide him onto the path of virtue. The publican also understands that his sins injure God, for it is to God that he turns asking for mercy for those sins. In the order of justice, mercy can only be bestowed by he who has been injured. This principle is clearly known by the publican, and hence he asks God for mercy.
Such a question reveals something else also: it demonstrates a healthy understanding of one’s calling to the path of virtue and ultimately to the cross. For though he has fallen away from the path of virtue, the publican is aware of his need to reform his ways and to imitate his Saviour once more. No matter his past failings, the publican is determined to renew his zeal in the pursuit of God.
This renewal he knows can only come about with the help of that same Saviour whom he seeks to imitate. Hence he turns to Him whom he seeks to imitate, asking first for clemency, for forgiveness, and as part of that same request, he implicitly asks for the grace to be able to make amends and continue more resolutely in the future. This point can justly be said of his request, for a sincere request for forgiveness is not made, if the one asking does not desire to amend his ways.
Thus in just eight words, the publican offers a model prayer for faithful souls to imitate, demonstrating a proper understanding of self and of God, a hatred of sin, a firm purpose of amendment, and a desire to follow Christ. It is first and foremost a lesson in prayer for the soul desirous of following Christ.
Preaching on this Gospel, St. Alphonsus writes about the importance of prayer, and how the example of the sinful, yet repentant publican serves as a reminder of this. Prayer draws us closer to God, and so the saint notes that God may permit those circumstances which necessitate our recourse to prayer: “The Lord…seeing the great advantages which we derive from the necessity of prayer, permits us to be attacked by enemies more powerful than we are, that we may ask his assistance. Hence they who are conquered cannot excuse themselves by saying that they had not strength to resist the assault of the enemy; for had they asked aid from God, he should have given it; and had they prayed, they should have been victorious. Therefore, if they are defeated, God will punish them. St. Bonaventure says, that if a general lose a fortress in consequence of not having sought timely succour from his sovereign, he shall be branded as a traitor. Thus God regards as a traitor the Christian who, when he finds himself assailed by temptations, neglects to seek the divine aid.”
Such words are strong indeed, but they are not without the evidence of Scripture to support the necessity and efficacy of prayer. The Psalm in today’s Introit serves as a reassurance of this: “When I call upon the Lord, He heard my voice, from those who war against me; and He humbled them, Who is before all ages, and remains forever: cast your care upon the Lord, and He will support you.” (Psalm 54)
Then again at the Offertory verse, this teaching is proclaimed once more: “To You I lift up my soul, O Lord. In You, O my God, I trust; let me not be put to shame, let not my enemies exult over me. No one who waits for You shall be put to shame.”
Indeed the example of the publican serves more than one purpose. Initially it offers a simple, yet profound, lesson on the manner of praying to God, pointing souls to the virtues the are necessary in order to develop the life of prayer and union with God. But it further reveals the necessity of prayer, showing that a soul who is truly desirous of union with God, must accept his complete dependance upon God. Finally it serves as a reassurance for those nervous to cast themselves at the foot of God in such a manner, for as evidenced by the other texts of the Mass, God will never leave a sincere prayer unanswered.
One of the great counsels of St. Alphonsus in his many works on prayer and spirituality, is that the day be dedicated to God and punctuated with brief aspirations. His sermon on the necessity and efficacy of prayer serves only to compound that teaching. Holy Mother Church, in presenting this parable of Christ, perhaps offers us the eight words of the publican as an aspiration which can be easily made throughout the day, and thus draw one ever closer to the desired union with God.