There is an old epic poem that some of us read in school called Beowulf. The story is about a warrior who battles monsters that are destroying lands and killing people because their joy disturbs the monster. The warrior ultimately emerges victorious.
Interestingly, Beowulf was recently reconstructed, this time from the monster’s point of view. In his vision, the author had the monster watching the priests of the tribe ritualizing before their gods. He says of the spectacle, there is no conviction in the old priests’ songs, there is only showmanship. No one in the kingdom is convinced that the gods have life in them. They observe the rituals, they take their hats off, put them on again, raise their arms, moan in tone and press their palms together, but, no one harbors unreasonable expectations of the gods.
A community that harbors no unreasonable expectations is the community that lacks meaning and is, therefore, incapable of commitment. It is insight into what happens to a religious group when they separate and eventually divorce theology from practice.
It is said that this is the era of the uncommitted, whether it is commitment to a person, institutions or values. We are also known to be a disposable society, and, as such, find it difficult to commit ourselves to anything or anyone or any idea that does not serve our immediate purposes. In the midst of this state of affairs, we ask ourselves, what is of value? What endures? To what and to whom do I commit myself? How does this commitment compel me to act and live?
As Christians, we are often a people of contradiction. We call ourselves a community of faith, of hope, and of love but sometimes we can be faithless, hopeless and loveless. Week after week we say, I believe in One God, in Christ who died for us, in one Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting. And we do believe. But, being human, sometimes our faith can be long on propositions and short on self-giving and commitment. Sometimes we tend to forget that without a “yes” to Jesus, a “yes” to propositions is sterile. It can become an empty ritual.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees because they have mindlessly gone about the tasks as religious leaders without raising the questions and going to the heart of the matter of what it means to believe in God. Meaning did not trouble their lives, and without meaning, there is little commitment. What Jesus found in them were the rituals of the uncommitted.
To lead full and happy lives as Christians we need a relationship with the person of Jesus. And you cannot have a relationship with anyone unless you communicate with them. When we communicate with Christ we call that prayer, both private and liturgical.
We cannot just go through the motions, like the walking-dead, looking somewhat good, but doing only what is expected of us. Or like the priests in Beowulf, just performing empty rituals. True prayer is a response.
The God of mystery teaches us with His presence, and prayer is our response to His presence. It is our saying “yes” to God. And, when we say “yes” to God, His presence breaks through our smallness and our sinfulness, and makes us better than we are. He works on and in us in countless ways, most of them beyond our recognizing: in the events of every day and the people who cross our path; and through the sacraments of our Church and the sacrament of the moment.
The response He asks of us is that we turn more totally to Him in loving awareness, and have enough faith in Him that we harbor unreasonable expectations that He can and will make a difference in our lives. Ask the question, how is your prayer life, both private and liturgical? Do you mumble the same old prayers? Why do you come to mass every week? Does any of it make a difference in what you do and the way you live? May it never be said of us as it was said of the Pharisees, “They pay Me lip service, but their hearts are far from Me.”