Sunday, August 16, 2009

Praying in the Aorist

I’ve watched it many times from my corner in the cathedral downtown:

An old lady will hobble into the church, rowing the marble tile with her cane to pull herself to the front. When she gets to the end of the center isle, she will bow at the altar as much as the cane allows, and then pull herself back up and continue to the tea candles in front of my favorite crucifix. She’ll rest her purse on the railing and fish out some change that echoes like slow metallic thunder as she empties each coin individually into the slot. Then she will pull out a candle from the box, light it with another candle already lit before the crucifix, and place it in its own candle stand. Finished with the task, she will hobble away with another belabored bow toward the altar, and exit the cathedral without further errands.

Other times it is not an old woman. It is a middle-aged man, walking briskly as if his lunch break is almost over. His kneel will take him down to his knees and keep him there a little longer, and his change will echo in the cathedral more quickly, like a deep applause. He will likewise light his candle, or maybe two or three, and exit the cathedral with another low kneel before the altar.

In any case, whatever the stature of the supplicant, I realize that their prayers for the unspoken requests that bring them to the cathedral are different from my typical prayers. At my most prayerful, I plead with God in tears and walk away wishing he was better at listening to me. At my least, I shoot up a thought in passing to the effect of, “Hey God, you should do that sometime.”

The supplicants at the cathedral, on the other hand, for the most part do not linger and weep. Nevertheless they have come, perhaps on their lunch breaks or on their way to the grocery store, perhaps even for a special trip. They make their prayers tangibly definitive, and they make their prayers generally brief.

As another esoteric analogy as I prepare for my last Greek exam, they seem to pray in the aorist imperative. Greek has two different tenses for commands: there is the present imperative which is used for ongoing actions that don’t have a fixed end-point (“Study English literature”), and the aorist imperative which is used for one-time actions or actions that have fixed end-points (“Clean your room”).

Initially I was upset to learn that the Kyrie Eleison (“Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy”), a regular part of church liturgy often said in conjunction with confession and absolution, was in the aorist imperative, as if we ask God for mercy as a one-time request with a fixed end-point: “Lord, have mercy right now and be done with it.” I almost never pray for anything like that; my prayers are more to the effect of, “Lord, be having mercy during this long and weary road of life.” I don’t want God to wave the mercy baton and walk away; I want him to be in the posture of mercy.

At any rate, whatever the reason for the tense of the Kyrie Eleison, it strikes me that my faith could use a little praying in the aorist, as if God were going to hear and do and say “It is finished” afterwards. Whether in confession or in supplication, even if the supplication is for something that seems indefinite, I would do better to pray as if God would hear and act and be done. I certainly want God to be a posture of mercy too, but maybe he already is, and maybe that posture makes him ready to respond immediately to prayers that we make definitively like a trip to the cathedral and walk away from like tea candles.

Don’t worry, readers. My grammar posts should stop coming soon...

1 comment:

Kate said...

I love your grammar posts. And will miss them terribly when they stop....