In reflecting on this wonderfully compact and challenging Lent prayer, it’s tempting to skip over this phrase and see it as referring only to those who are actually in a position to wield power. This would, of course, be to ignore the fundamental truth that power is always relative and there are far too many instances of those with little formal power in the bigger scheme of things who have used the power they do have negligently or abusively: men over women, adults over children, clerics over laypeople, majorities over minorities. To pray that the Master of our life take from us all lust for power is to pray that our eyes are opened to the way our power or influence is experienced by others so that we use whatever power we do have constructively and compassionately, for the wellbeing of all and in the pattern of the One who emptied himself. Jesus used his power to heal and forgive, and to teach in a way that invited response from his disciples rather than handing down fully-formed teachings. Parables are an example of teaching that empowers the student in the search for the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.
Even if we do not feel ourselves to be people with any significant power to exercise, it may be that we subconsciously strive for a different kind of power – the power of knowledge. We might imagine that the world is what we think it to be, that it conforms to our theories or concepts about it. In this way, we control the world by our preconceptions, potentially closing our mind off to different views. This is also a temptation in the world of faith, where we might conflate our thoughts about God with the reality of God, who is beyond all conceptuality. There is a lovely story in the Apophthegmata Patrum that addresses this problem:
One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said,. ‘You have not understood it.’ Las of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How will you explain this saying?’ and he replied, ‘I do no know.’ Then Abba Anthony said, ‘Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said “I do not know.”‘p.4 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo 1975
One of the ways in which we learn to allow the Master of our life to wean us off our lust for power is to find ourselves more ready to say ‘I do not know’.