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"Praying" with Peripheral Vision

The Gospel for Sunday is the parable of "The Pharisee and the Publican." In his Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Liturgical Press: Sacra Pagina Series), Luke Johnson writes:

The parable itself is one that invites internalization by every reader because it speaks to something deep within the heart of every human being. The love of God can so easily turn into an idolatrous self-love; the gift can so quickly be seized as a possession; what comes from another can so blithely be turned into self-accomplishment. Prayer can be transformed into boasting.  Piety is not an unambiguous posture.

The literary skill revealed by the story matches its spiritual insight. The pious one is all convoluted comparison and contrast; he can receive no gift because he cannot stop counting his possessions. His prayer is one of peripheral vision.

Of course, "praying" with peripheral vision is not praying at all.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Do you think anybody really prays like the Pharisee in the parable  (Thank you, God, for making me better than everybody else)?

I can see people praying for other sinners without being cognizant that they themselves are sinners, but its hard to imagine people offering prayers of gratitude for being more virtuous than other people.

My wife made a remark recently that has stayed with me, to the effect that one of the ills of Catholic preaching today in certain quarters is the tendency to condemn others' sins.


One might call this a foundational parable. Anyone who does not recognize that s/he needs mercy because s/he is a sinner is in trouble. This attitude only prepares a person for the Holy Spirit.

Irene, people may not say "thank you, God, for making me better than everyone else," but there's something that, IMO, comes close, and that's the "God was watching over us" prayer. You hear it all the time when one family survives a tornado/hurricane/flood/earthquake while all their neighbors perish. While I realize the folks who made it may only be trying to express gratitude for making it through, It's hard to not to infer that God was either so busy saving them that he missed the neighbors' plight. Or that the neighbors were too sinful to bother with. 

Back in the early 1960s, we had Baptist neighbors who used to thank God for making them white. One of the many examples of Christian bigotry that fed my mother's bigotry against Christians.

More like "preying" with peripheral vision.

Any self-satisfaction that comes from comparing ourselves to others before God can count in this regard, I think. We may not say "I thank you, God, that I am not like..." but if inwardly we are congratulating ourselves on the orthodoxy of our party or having the "right" opinions or being more pious or virtuous than the next person... it's what the parable says. Interestingly enough, you can also be self-righteous about beating your breast the hardest and insisting you are the biggest sinner, and that will not be very humble either! 

What's that "peripheral vision" about? We usually hear about it as something that helps us be better, safer drivers by broadening our awareness of our environment; or better at fast-moving sports. Is it that the pious one is so focused on counting his possessions that he does not see the breadth of faith and is less aware of the presence of God all around - but, no: he seems to consider peripheral vision as a negative! Then is it, maybe, an allusion to macular degeneration? That's mostly an old person's disease and the  people with that affliction, I was once told, only see what is peripheral, not what is central, and eventually they become blind. Does he mean that the pious one is so focused on his accomplishments, that are actually quite secondary, that he does not see the presence of God in the center? That's rather far-fetched. Or maybe he wrote "peripheral vision" but meant "tunnel vision". Or maybe there is a context in American culture that eludes me.

The priest at the place where I went talked about the similarity  between the pious one and Paul in the secon reading. 

Or is it "peripheral vision" in the sense that he is comparing himself to the other man and is aware of the people around him instead of solely focused on his relationship with God??

Claire --

Macular degeneration is common in old people, but now there is a very successful treatment -- Lucentis shots.  Very expensive, but they work.  (My insurance pays for it).  (I'm saying this in case anybody on the blog knows someone with it --  they need to know that there is help.)

P. S.  Laser treatments also help.  Are these treatments analogous to the grace of God? :-)

Anne Oliver: > Laser treatments also help.  Are these treatments analogous to the grace of God? :-)

Well, perhaps a prevenient grace that in His creation of humans he allowed for the development of human intelligence and ingenuity that would one day turn itself to alleviating suffering in such a way.

Mark L.

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