The Personalist Project

Sometimes we play mind games with ourselves and put unnecessary obstacles in our own path. When my parents were Evangelicals, they ran into an interesting illustration of this.

The question was: Is it OK to smoke while you're praying? The answer seemed to be No, certainly not--it's disrespectful to God to distract yourself with a self-indulgence like tobacco when you're supposed to be paying attention to Him. How irreverent can you get?

(Please note that at the time smoking didn't have the heavy moral connotations it bears today: I think it was considered a slightly suspect minor self-indulgence, best avoided not for moral but for class-snobbery reasons.)

But what if the question was: Is it OK to pray while you're smoking? The answer seemed to be, Yes, of course, it's always OK to pray. Because, as I've written here and here, God is not just interested in the "religious stuff" we do: our business is to open up our whole life to Him and glorify Him not just for an hour on Sunday plus, say, the time it takes to whip off an occasional rosary or a good deed.

So, agreed: we're not supposed to be Sunday Christians, keeping Jesus stored away--handy, but not interfering--in case of emergency. My pastor in Ann Arbor, Fr. Ed Fride, calls this the Jesus as paramedic approach. As I recalled it here:

[Y]ou don't want a personal relationship with your paramedic.  He serves his function and then he leaves.  In fact, you fervently hope no occasion to call on him ever arises again. 

But if we're not supposed to call on Him only in emergencies, and we're not supposed to limit Him to helping us with "religious" matters, what are we supposed to do with Him, exactly? Live in continual friendship with Him--fine, but how? He's all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, all-just, all-merciful. What could we possibly have in common? 

Theologically, of course, the answer is clear. When He became incarnate, He became "like us in all things but sin." He took on human nature--not as a disguise or an illusion, but in truth. So we have almost everything in common.

How are we supposed to treat him, then? With reverence, or as a smoking buddy?

I would say: Both.

There's a lovely scene in Ushpizin, an Israeli movie about an Orthodox Jewish couple whose faith and married life are threatened by infertility, financial troubles, and a certain disagreement about how much mercy and welcome, exactly, they should bestow on the husband's shady old jailbird friends who show up on their doorstep one day. (Watch the whole thing; you won't be sorry.)

At one point the wife is sitting out on the little balcony of their apartment, smoking a well deserved cigarette, and she's talking to somebody--pouring out affectionate conversation, in a very informal sort of way. It's not clear at first, but suddenly you realize it's God she's talking to. It's beautiful.

And it's just of the kind of thing Fr. Michel Esparza writes about in the (I hope) soon-to-be-translated Sintonia con Christo. He says that, now that God has taken on human nature, including a human heart, you can express both reverence and familiarity. You can, if you like, walk into an adoration chapel, bow to the ground with all the deference and veneration in the world, and then proceed to freely vent your frustration about what your boss did to you today.

Or how embarrassingly you matched your two-year-old meltdown for meltdown.

Or how grateful you are that you He helped you get through the move, or the SAT, or the seven unexpected dinner guests.

Or whatever.

I don't even smoke, but I do try to have a cup of coffee with the Incarnate Word every morning.

I highly recommend it.

Comments (6)

Sam Roeble

#1, Aug 1, 2016 1:27pm

Great plug for Ushpizim!  The husband Moshe truly tries to lay down his life while the wife prays too--it is a unique and much needed witness in Judaism

Devra Torres

#2, Aug 1, 2016 1:49pm

I love that movie! Perfect for the Year of Mercy, too!

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Aug 2, 2016 11:44am

I have a friend whose daughter came close to dying during childbirth. The morning after, a priest friend asked him how he was. He said, "Well, it's like this, Father. I was up all night with a rosary in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and I think I might have smoked the rosary and prayed the cigarette." :)

Another great Israeli movie we saw this year: Footnote. Also, The Band's Visit.

All of them put their finger on humanity with such warmth and humor and tenderness.

Devra Torres

#4, Aug 2, 2016 1:22pm

Thank you--we're always looking for worthwhile movies!

It seems to me that "reverence or intimacy?" is one of the false dichotomies that make the most trouble in the spiritual life. It's yet another case of taking the caricature of each--"Jesus is JUST my buddy" and "reverence equals stilted and artificial formality"--and pitting them against each other and acting as if everybody must make their choice, on those terms.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Aug 2, 2016 2:17pm

A heads up about the other two movies: they don't have Ushpizim's religious theme. I wouldn't watch them with younger children, though they're nothing like what's normal PG 13 fare here.

Rhett Segall

#6, Aug 5, 2016 11:22am

Thank you all for  the film references. Kathy and I saw "Footnote". It's terrific!  I've just borrowed "Ushpizim"  from the library.  I'll borrow "The Band's Visit" next.

Prayer in the context of intimacy and reverence are gifts of the Holy Spirit called piety and fear of the Lord.  Piety enables us to feel at home with God-being in my Father's house- on the  one hand while fear of the Lord maintains a sense of reverence towards the Almighty on the other.The gifts enables us to comfortably integrate God's immanence and transcendence.

Cinema is an art form that portrays people praying well when they deal with themes specifically religious- "Fiddler on the Roof"  is extraordinary in integrating both immanence and transcendence;  "The Hiding Place" is magnificent in exemplifying Corey Ten Boom's intimacy with the Lord.

Films that do not have a religious theme are woefully deficient in portraying humanity's natural instinct for prayer. I'd like to see a film which presents a human drama where a person as a matter of course and un self-consciously prays.. 

Madame Secretary does a decent job of presenting prayer as part of peoples life.  I can't think of any other dramas that do.

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