Sunday, July 28, 2013

17th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C: Prayer and Persistence

Why is it that… of all the things that are the most life-giving in our faith, prayer can be the most confounding? The questions that we have when we first learn to pray continue to pop-up when we are most advanced in prayer: When should I pray? How should I pray? What should I say? Why should I even try? The good news is we are not left on our own to find the answers to these questions. And we are not alone in asking them. Jesus’ disciples, even after his preaching, teaching, and parables; even after his miraculous cures and his miraculous feats; even after he calmed the storm at sea, cast out demons, and multiplied the loaves and fishes; even after the Transfiguration, they still felt the need to ask him how to pray.

And this we should pay close attention too. This is Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human. The Father cannot resist the prayers of His Son. The very words of the “Our Father” that Jesus gave his disciples were given to Jesus by the Father as he prayed in silence. At the same time, Jesus knows the human heart perfectly. He knows how to put into words exactly what we need. The “Our Father” is the perfect prayer. No matter your experience of prayer it is the surest way to our Father’s heart. It should always be a staple of our personal prayer.

The words of the “Our Father” in St. Matthew’s Gospel are the words we are most familiar with. In St. Luke’s Gospel today, the “Our Father” is a little more succinct. He starts out with, “Father, hallowed be your name.” He doesn’t say “who art in heaven.” St. Luke does this because he doesn’t want us to think that God is somehow confined in heaven and distant from us. He leaves this out in order to draw us up to heaven, close to the Father, and to draw us away from earthly things (Theophylus, Catena Aurea, Luke 11). This closeness to him is the reason that we are able to call him “Father.” We truly are his children and we should feel like his children. We should feel like we can come to him with whatever needs we may have. And if we pattern our prayer after the “Our Father”, he is sure to answer us, even if not how we expect.

Believe it or not, there is a right and a wrong way to pray. The Letter of St. James, chapter 4, verse 3 says, “You ask, but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Sometimes children pray for silly things, like when a girl prays for God to make her brother mute so he’ll stop picking on her! This is OK because it cultivates a familiarity with God and an impulse to turn to Him regularly. When we become adults we should have a child-like faith, but not a child-ish faith. We shouldn’t pray to win the lottery or for our favorite team to win. Like the “Our Father,” we should praise God first – “hallowed by Thy Name” – ask for his will to be ours – “Thy Will be done” – then pray for only those things which are objectively good for us. We should examine our motives and ask God to purify them.

Even a seemingly good prayer, like “God, grant me a deeper understanding of your Church’s teaching,” could be tinged with the desire for others to praise us for this understanding. And God, who knows our hearts perfectly, will not answer us right away because he does not give what is not good for us now. Like the gospel said, he will not “hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish” or “hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg.” This is because no matter how good the fish or the egg might sound, if in his will they are not good for us now, then they will be harmful. But, when we pray the “Our Father” or pattern our own prayer after it, asking for good things with pure motives, our Father will surely answer us, even unexpectedly. He would not encourage us to ask, seek, & knock if he was not willing to give and give abundantly.

Our ancestral father in faith, Abraham, gives us another sure and certain way to our Father’s heart: persistence. The Lord in the form of an angel was determined to go to the wicked towns of Sodom and Gomorrah to see if the outrage expressed against them was really true. Abraham knew what the verdict would be if it was: The Lord’s justice would prevail over those cities. Moved with hope he concluded that surely there are innocents among them. Then out of love for these unknown innocents he implored the Lord repeatedly to make concession for them. He was humble, he expressed all along his desire not to pester the Lord. But with courage he continued to intercede for the innocent residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. And with patience and generosity the Lord progressively tempered his justice with his mercy at each of Abraham’s requests. It was Abraham’s persistence that elicited the most generosity from the Lord.

We should never be afraid to be persistent in prayer. Jesus Christ himself taught us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread”. This daily bread is both our temporal, physical, or emotional needs for that day and especially our spiritual need for the Eucharist. These we should pray for every day. But, when we think of praying to God about the same thing over and over we imagine a little child in line at the grocery store who begs and begs for candy until his mother finally buys it. The mother in that case isn’t teaching the child about the nobility of persistence or rewarding him for his perseverance. She buys the candy because she can’t bear the whining any longer! This is not how God operates and it is not how he sees our relationship with him. From God’s point of view, He is unwearied in his love for us. From our point of view, we pray repeatedly for something not because we want to pester God into submission but because we believe that he can provide what we want. It’s actually a sign of great faith. If you are one who prays repeatedly, you should know that God has given you a great faith

Repetitious prayer also develops our reliance on Him rather than on ourselves. It helps us to give the proper value to God’s gifts and not to take them for granted. One who toils for years for something keeps it safe and secure, he doesn’t leave it unguarded to be lost or stolen or forgotten. God’s gifts, his graces, virtues, assistance and healing are more precious than gold. He doesn’t wish for these things to be taken so trivially. But this doesn’t mean that he is stingy in his giving. In fact, He gives much more than we are willing to receive.

God sometimes delays in answering our prayer because he knows that this delay will serve us better in the end. If the man in the parable today had opened the door on the first knock for his friend who needed bread for his guest, then the friend in his hurry would have taken the bread and ran home immediately to his guest. Instead, the man inside delayed, forcing his friend to consider not only his immediate need, but also the late hour of his request and the courtesy due to the family inside who were asleep. The man caused his friend to think more deeply about their friendship, to honor it more, and to think outside of himself toward others. God’s delay in answering our prayer should cause us to consider the same things.

When we pray the “Our Father” in a little while say each phrase carefully and think about each phrase as you say it. When we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Hosanna in the Highest!” praise God from the depths of your heart. Before you receive Communion, ask the Father, through Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit to unite your will to his. Then spend some quiet time in prayer after Communion, the most fitting time to pray, and ask for what you need. When you praise him, seek his will, and ask for good things with good intentions at this time – right after receiving Communion – you will not only be praying like Jesus and with Jesus, but you will be praying as Jesus, because the Father will look upon you and see the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, living in you. When He sees His Son in you, He will not fail to answer.

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