So we continue our series on Charles, free from responsibility to preach to the people of God on Sundays, being able to have as crazy and personal a reflection on the Sunday gospel as he could want.
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. (Matthew 5:30)
I think prayer is always going to be awkward. This used to bother me more than it does now. I guess that when I was younger I imagined that after a little bit of time and effort prayer would turn into some kind of 'powerful religious experience,' a reservoir of spiritual peace and power to which I would happily turn each day to tap the strength and zeal for the great things I was going to do for the Kingdom of God.
But prayer has remained awkward. There are always distractions. And even if you practice a form of prayer that teaches you to let go of distractions or turn them to your advantage, to realize that they are invitations to pray or at least to humility, they remain distractions on some level. One temptation or dead end having been overcome, there is another, more subtle and insidious, waiting for you at a deeper level. Or then there are the cherished ideas, as pious as they may have seemed, or some self-attribution, as much as it seemed to be 'me' or 'who I am,' when these are revealed to be idols. The giddy feeling of liberation that comes with smashing the idol, cleaning out just a little more the Holy of Holies that God has commanded be left empty, it doesn't last so long before we are struggling with something else revealing itself to be an idol, and we find ourselves in the vertigo of 'No! But that's my religion' or 'No! But that's me, my personality!'
It's life this side of Heaven. And I think this is how it's supposed to be. Awkward prayer that doesn't feel restful, though we can see in the rest of our lives that our souls are refreshed. Awkward prayer that doesn't feel empowering, though we can see in the rest of our lives that the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness. It was a great liberation for me when a spiritual director invited me to look for the fruits and graces of prayer not during the time of prayer but in the whole rest of my daily life. "What do you usually do right after your time of meditation?' he asked. In those days I usually did the dishes.
"Notice how it is for you to do the dishes." It was a revelation.
So to the cutting off of right hands. If we can guess that the Scripture presumes the norm of right-handedness, it makes all the difference. If we had to choose a hand to cut off, it would be the left. But we are called to cut off the right, the one that we thought more important, more useful. Back to the cherished ideas that turn out to be idols, the things we never imagined we could be called to let go of. But here's the thing; for a right-handed person it would be much easier to cut off the left hand and throw it away; the chop would be cleaner and the throw would be stronger and more confident.
For the left hand to cut off the right there is more risk of mess, of tentative chops, of pain. When the left hand throws the severed hand away it won't go as far or as straight. And so it is with prayer; in prayer we are called to let go, to let go first of all of distractions, of thoughts, even our images of God and of ourselves. And yet we discover that even our idea that this process should be clean and confident is itself something we need to let go of, for it is an awkward business, like the left hand trying to cut off the right and throw it away.
So if prayer is awkward and messy, be at peace. The Lord himself let us know that it would be.