Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
29th Sunday of OT, Year C
October 21, 2001
Ex 17:8-13; 2Tim3:14-14:2; Lk 18:1-8
1) Jesus could not have been any more explicit in today’s Gospel about prayer. He said that we need to pray “always.” Sometimes we can reduce prayer to a few minutes a day or an hour at Sunday Mass and think we’re doing okay. But Jesus says that that is nowhere near enough. He says that we need to pray at all times. Our whole lives are meant to be lives of prayer. Everything we do should be a prayer, a living, loving dialogue with God. And he’s not asking us to do anything that he himself didn’t do. He used to constantly make time for prayer, even spending all night communicating with his heavenly Father. But to become more like him, to pray always and never lose heart, we need his help and his guidance. This weekend let’s ask him for it, by consulting what he has given us in today’s readings.
2) Prayer to the soul is what breathing is to the body. If we don’t breathe, we die. Similarly, if we don’t pray, our spiritual lives begin to choke and die. That’s a simple reality. While most of us can hold our breath for a certain limited period of time, if we continue to hold our breaths spiritually, our souls will begin to have a stroke and die. And our whole lives will pay the consequence, whether we realize it or not. In the first reading, we encounter the episode of the historic battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites. While Moses held his hands aloft in prayer, the Israelites won; while his hands fell, the Amalekites began to win. That can serve as a helpful image to our own spiritual lives. When we pray, God is able to win in us, we are able to fight against and defeat those temptations and difficulties that keep us from God, that hurt our relationships with others, that rob us of peace, that make us so much less than the people we know God calls us to be. When we stop praying, all of these things start to defeat us. We’re never more human than when we pray.
3) Jesus says that we should pray always without losing heart. I think all of us have a certain desire to pray. We all know that we should pray. But so often, most of us either don’t get started praying or don’t persevere. Jesus tells us to perservere in our prayer, without ever losing heart. In order to understand what he’s getting at and make this homily practical, we have to understand some of the things that make us lose heart in prayer and then confront them:
a) When we can’t concentrate on prayer;
b) When moral difficulties and sins rob us of a desire to pray;
c) When our prayers don’t seem to be heard;
We can answer each in turn.
4) Sometimes we lose perseverance in prayer when we can’t seem to concentrate, when we can’t find the words. Sometimes when we’re trying to pray, five minutes can seem like five days. That’s why the great saints have said that it’s always important to have something to help us to have a conversation with God, something that can capture our mind or our bodies and prevent them from going astray. Something like the Rosary can help us to have a conversation with God, because it occupies our lips and mouths kind of as background music so that we can focus on God upon whom we meditate in the mysteries. The Pope has again called on all of us to pray the Rosary for peace in the world. We need to pray the Rosary too for peace in our hearts.
5) Another very important help to prayer is Sacred Scripture. This is an enormous gift from God, which so few of us ever really actually open. Our Bibles can sit on shelves collecting dust, when the answers to the greatest and deepest questions we could ever ask are in there. Sacred Scripture tells the story of God’s interaction with people throughout the centuries and culminates in giving us the details of the live of God. What could possibly be more interesting or important? Yet we need to dig in. As we hear in today’s second reading from St. Paul to St. Timothy, Sacred Scripture is the “source of the wisdom which through faith in Jesus Christ leads to salvation.” It’s the source of our wisdom and leads us through Christ to salvation. Moreover, as St. Paul tells us, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching — for reproof, correction and training in holiness — so that the man of God may be fully competent and equipped for every good work.” The life of a disciple who follows Jesus must be a training in holiness, the attempt to be chiseled by God more and more into a saint, so that we can spend eternity with the saints in heaven. Sacred Scripture is the handbook on holiness. If we want to learn how to fly a plane, or fix a car, or repair something at home, we generally read a book that can help us to do it. Similarly if we want to get to heaven, if we want to know the deepest mysteries about ourselves, God has given us this handbook, the Bible. But we need to open it up and read it. God has given us brains to undertand and eyes to read for this purpose more than any. He inspired the evangelists and the Sacred writers to write it for us, so that we might be able to have all we need to be saved. But again, we have to pick it up and read it. If we do it will change our lives. The Bible is a book written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the first Catholics for future Catholics. Yet our Protestant brothers and sisters far outshine us in their gratitude to God for the gift of Sacred Scripture. They study it generally every day. Most Catholics never study it in depth. And we’re much worse off for it. For those who wouldn’t know where to begin, just start with the Gospels. If you’d like some help in doing so, that’s exactly why we’ve started the Bible Study in English here at Espirito Santo. For 90 minutes, two Monday nights a month, we dig into Sacred Scripture, learn the principles of how to understand it accurately, and grow in love of God who had it written out of love for us. You’re always welcome to join us. Ignorance of Sacred Scripture, as St. Jerome once said, is ignorance of Christ. And anybody who chooses to ignore Christ, to think that anything else is more important than Christ, puts his eternal salvation at risk. Reading the Bible will help us to learn how to pray much more intelligently and powerful to God, because we will through reading the Bible come to know God and ourselves much better.
6) A second obstacle to praying always is when moral difficulties or sin rob us of the desire to pray. The more we sin, the more we distance ourselves from God, and the farther we are from God, generally the less we desire to nourish our relationship with him. Then sometimes the devil can begin to make us slowly start to resent God and those who do his will, as we try to justify our sinful behavior against the clear, loving and just laws of God. The next thing we know we’ve stopped praying, often stopped going to the sacraments, and sometimes even started to say that we don’t even have to pray or go to the sacraments. It’s a very dangerous slippery slope. The path back to God is prayer and the sacraments. Like Moses, we have to lift up our hands in prayer to defeat the various Amalekites within us and our society, that try to keep us away from God. In terms of sin and prayer, if we really want to pray well, to grow in prayer, we need to be in the state of grace, the state of having God inside of us. Whenever we commit a serious sin, we kick God out of ourselves. Whenever we commit smaller or venial sins, we distance ourselves from God a little, the flame of our hearts becomes weaker. That’s why the Sacrament of Confession is so important. Every Catholic who wants to grow in holiness and prayer should go to Confession as soon as possible after any serious sin and, if the person hasn’t committed any serious sins, at least about once a month to confess the venial sins. As the Divine Physician, Jesus will start to clean out our insides so that we can become more and more filled with a spirit of prayer.
7) The third difficulty with praying always without losing heart is that sometimes we think our prayers don’t work. We think it’s a waste of time. We think that God doesn’t really hear us. Therefore, we can sometimes say to ourselves, what’s the point? Well, God always hears our prayers, but he does not always answer them when we want nor in the way we might want, but he always hears them when they’re sincere prayers and answers them in the way he knows is best for us. I’d like to explain these truths about prayer with a couple of analogies and a couple stories.
8 ) Jesus teaches us to pray to God our Father. He himself calls Him “Abba,” which means, basically, Daddy. Jesus tells us to pray with great confidence, because if no human father would ever give his son a snake if he asked for a fish or a stone if he asked for bread, so our Daddy in heaven would give us every good thing. But what if a child asked for something bad? Would a Father who loved a child give that child what was bad? For example, “Daddy, please buy me a gun or a big survival knife so that I can play with it.” No loving Father would give the child such a thing, even though the child asked for it. In a similar way, God the Father won’t give us anything that would harm us. We might think that what we’re asking for is good, but He, seeing everything, would know that it was not good for us. There’s a great song on country radio by Garth Brooks, called “Unanswered Prayer.” The lyrics of the song go basically like this. A man went to his high school reunion with his wife and saw his old girlfriend. Immediately the memories came back about how he used to pray every night that that girl would become his wife, how attractive she was, how fun she was. Then it goes to the verse, “Thank you, God, for unanswered prayers.” Because in the second verse we learned that that high school flame turned out to be pretty ugly on the inside and that if he had married her, he never would have met his wonderful wife, had the wonderful family he now had, and the wonderful life. He thanked God again for unanswered prayers. God always hears our prayers, but he doesn’t always answer them how we want, because he might want to answer them by giving us something better. Garth was asking for a wonderful wife and family and that’s what God gave him, but it was with someone other than what he himself thought. It’s similar to something that happened to me one Patriot’s Day when I was eight. My dad and Uncle asked me what I wanted to do on the holiday off from School. I told him I wanted to watch the Red Sox on television. Would that be okay? They said no, that we were all going to go do something else together, the two of them and the three boys. I protested. “Come on! I don’t want to do anything else.” They didn’t give me what I wanted. So instead I reluctantly got into the car on Monday with my two brothers and off we went. I didn’t know the directions of where we were going very well, but the next thing I knew, we had stopped in some parking lot, stepped out of the van, and there I beheld, for the first time in my life Fenway Park. “Thank God for unanswered prayers!” Had my father given me my wish to stay home and watch the Red Sox, I never would have received that great prize of something far greater, seeing them in person. God can treat us the same way. He always hears our prayers, but doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way we want. Sometimes we’re only going to know the rest of the story in the after life.
9) But God doesn’t always answer our prayers when we want either. This is hard for us to understand. We’re so impatient with God. That’s why Jesus tells us in the Gospel to pray with perseverence, never to give up, never to lose heart. Why doesn’t God hear our prayers right away? Why does he make us pray sometimes for hours, for days, for months, for years? Because he wants to give us something even greater. There’s a famous Irish nun from Florida who came to Taunton in June, 2000, called Sr. Briege McKenna. Since the early 1970s, when she was cured by God of a serious leg injury, she has been one of God’s instruments through whom he has worked many miracles over the course of years. She tells the story that once a family came to her to ask her to pray for their young son, who was dying of brain cancer. She said she would pray with them and did, but encouraged them to continue praying. The prayers didn’t seem to work. The doctor’s kept saying his condition got worse. Eventually he fell into a coma for months. His vitals signs continued to worsen. He recovered slightly for a few days, because getting very bad again. The family kept praying. They asked Sr. Briege why God hadn’t hear their prayers yet. She said that he had heard their prayers, but that sometimes he does not answer our prayers as we want when we want. She encouraged them to persevere in prayer, to never lose hope, and they did. It was only after two-and-a-half years that God answered the prayers of the family and gave the child an instantaneous, miraculous cure. They called Sr. Briege one afternoon to tell her of the miracle. Then the father of the boy said to her, “You know, Sr. Briege, it’s only now that I recognize why God didn’t answer our prayer right away. If he did, our son would have been fine like he is now, but our family would have never been as close as it is now. We would have never learned how to pray as a family. Thank God he waited!”
10) The last type of prayer that sometimes is not answered as we want when we want is when we pray for someone we love when they’re sick, that they might recover and not die. Then they die. We can sometimes get angry at God, that he didn’t seem to answer our prayer. But if our prayer were really coming out of love for the person who was sick, God might have given that person something far greater, the purpose for which the person was made, namely eternal life. Sometimes our prayers can be selfish, like a young child’s requests to a father. I remember visiting some cousins of mine when the oldest sister was about to leave for college. The youngest girl in the family was so upset that she’d be “losing” her older sister, who would be going far away. The little girl cried and begged the father not to let her older sister leave, but the father said, “She needs to go away to college now. It’s best for her, so that she can become whom God wants her to be.” Sometimes our prayer for those who are about to leave us can be like that little girl’s; we don’t want the other to leave, even though leaving this world to go to heaven is clearly better for them, so that they can truly become whom God wants them to be.
11) What a great gift prayer is and what a privilege! Imagine! God listens attentively to us! Like a loving Daddy, he so desires to answer our prayers and to give us every good thing, much more than our small imaginations can fathom. But we have to trust Him, that he who made us, knows always what is best for us. That’s why in the great prayer Jesus taught us, we pray, “Thy will be done!,” rather than “My will be done,” because God’s will is always what is best for us. As we approach the altar to join into the greatest prayer ever, Jesus’s own prayer from the Upper Room and the Cross which saved us, we ask God to give us the grace to pray always, to convert everything we do into a loving dialogue with him, so that we, through Jesus’s passion, death and Resurrection in which we now share, might come to continue that conversation forever with him in heaven.