Perhaps the sensational nature of such a tale of horror sends you reeling into incredulity for emotional cover. After all, how could this be true? A few years later I took over as organist for a while at the same church, and this song died a mysterious death (until now some people may have thought there was no connection). Bad taste was not the only reason I saw this ditty as requiring extinction. It carried within it a far worse problem.
To express that problem, I shall relate the thing I used to imagine when being subjected to that song. I imagined that, due to some time warp (to use sci-fi lingo), some members of that congregation were able to sing this song in the presence of one of the Desert Fathers of ancient Egypt, and to ask him, beaming with smiles, how he liked it. And so I imagined his reply:
Upon hearing the song, the old man began to weep. “I cannot sing with you this song,” he said. “It would serve only as a means to flatter myself in the pretense that I worshiped God. Or, I would foolishly believe that my love for God was so pure, and myself made so perfect in charity, that when next the demons would tempt me I should prove to be off my guard, and fall. Better than your song is the prayer of the Publican.” And they went away edified at the old man’s humility, and resolved never to sing so foolishly again.
I imagined the last part out of hope.
Humility and honesty
In those days, over twenty years ago, the same church made a point of hiring a bus to drive from the Baltimore area to Washington D.C. every January 22nd for the Annual March for Life (this is still an annual event, and worth attending). On one of those occasions some of us arrived early at the church to pray together. Not everyone there was a member, since others came as welcome guests for the bus ride. So, during these prayers a woman began to pray out-loud spontaneously, revealing quite obviously that she was a Pentecostal or Charismatic. She claimed victory, bound every demon in the world, and put the Devil himself on notice in the most triumphalist, scripture quoting prayer I had heard anyone utter in a very long time.
When she was done, and the smoke had cleared, the Devil apparently vanquished because she was, as I am sure she would be quick to point out, a "prayer warrior," I recalled a previous year in which, after the ride to Washington, and after President Reagan addressed the crowd by telephone, a Rabbi led all the marchers in prayer. He said, "Lord, it is not our hands that have shed this blood." Recalling that Pharisaitical prayer (Luke 18:11), and after the triumphalist Pentecostal intercession as we were yet kneeling inside the church, I suggested to everyone that we open the Prayer Book to the General Confession. We began after getting a nod from the Rector, who pulled out his stole in preparation to speak the Absolution. We confessed, for prayer about the nation's sin of abortion seemed more appropriate as penitential rather than triumphalist, and it seemed to be a more effective intercession as well.
"And whiles I was speaking, and praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the LORD my God for the holy mountain of my God..." (Dan. 9:20) The prophet Daniel understood how to approach God effectively, humbling himself in prayer, humbling his soul by fasting, confessing sin as a member of the nation.
St. Paul said: "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing." (Rom. 7:18)
In our Common Prayer tradition we have no room to flatter ourselves. We are miserable offenders who expect absolution because God is good; we are sinners who expect forgiveness because Christ died for us. If we engage in spiritual warfare it is not with our own power, but in confidence that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned the Church. Our Common Prayer tradition is based on the honesty and humility that scripture teaches, indeed, that it creates within those who "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" the word God has inspired. If we love God it is not because we ourselves are spiritual and holy: Rather, "We love him, because he first loved us." (I John 4:19)