Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat given at Sacred Heart Retreat House
November 15-17, 2002
• In the book of Genesis, we find a very mysterious scene involving Jacob and God. Here’s what the sacred author writes:
Gen 32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
• In this mysterious scene, the Fathers of the Church saw an image of prayer, which they conceived as a battle, as a wrestling match, in which we, like Jacob, wrestle with God and with our own humanity.
• Prayer is a BATTLE.
• Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort.
• Prayer is a battle
1) Against ourselves, especially our weaknesses
2) Against the wiles of the devil, who does everything possible to turn us away from prayer, away from union with God.
3) It’s also in some sense a wrestling with God, as we try to conform ourselves to His will, oftentimes kicking against the goad.
• And this battle occurs not just during those times we pray, but through our whole life, which oftentimes determines whether we pray at all. There’s a good theological reason for this: We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we’re struggling to live according to the Spirit of Christ, our prayer will suffer.
• The spiritual battle of a Christian’s life is inseparable from the battle of prayer.
• During this conference, we’re going to talk about the battle of prayer, the types of objections that human beings raise to fight the will of God that we pray always, as well as the types of difficulties that Christians encounter when they do pray.
• But before we enter into these, let’s remember that we are disciples of the one who has conquered the world! This is a battle that we can win, because the Lord is on our side. But to win, we have to be on His side!
• Objections to prayer
• We start with our culture, which is a culture that doesn’t support Christian prayer.
• There are several mistaken notions of prayer on the market today.
• Some people view prayer as a pre-eminently psychological activity, geared toward making us “feel good” about ourselves. Good prayer will have sound effects in our psyche, but prayer aims to unite all of us God, body and soul.
• Some see it as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void. This is what you see in a lot of eastern mysticism, especially Buddhism. The goal here is to read nirvana, which is the void that comes after one has emptied himself or herself of all images and attachments to the world. In some circles in the Church, this has tried to substitute for real prayer. The goal of Christian prayer is not this “nothingness,” this “emptiness,” but a union of love with God.
• Others reduce prayer to ritual words and postures. If they do certain things — like show up for Mass and stand, sit, stand, sit, stand, kneel, stand, kneel, stand, kneel and stand — then they’re praying. Prayer, above all, however, involves the heart and our heart can be anything but lifted to the Lord if all we’re doing is going through the motions.
• Certain attitudes from wordly or scientific mentality have said that prayer is fantasy, because they say that nothing is true if it cannot be verified by empirical science. Well, there are a lot of things, including the most important things, that cannot be measured by the tools of science. Love is one of them. Prayer is a mystery that overflows both our conscious and unconscious lives. But some effects of prayer are empirically verifiable, like true miracles. There was a recent book printed (unfortunately only in Latin!) about the miracles accepted for the canonizations done by John Paul II. These responses to prayer are empirically verifiable (and medically explicable!).
• Other people, especially in America, prize profit and production; prayer, being “unproductive,” is seen to be useless. They look at prayer as a “waste of time.” Some people have even called prayer, “wasting time with the Lord.” This is not the Christian notion. Prayer is the most important thing we can do, and it is very “productive,” effecting all types of interior fruits.
• Another common objection comes from our desire to be entertained. Prayer, because it is not entertaining, therefore can’t keep our attention and therefore is not important. We can get bored, we say. But that’s really because we don’t love. We’re never bored in the presence of someone we love deeply and passionately. We’re just grateful for the time.
• Another flows from our sensualist and comfort-seeking culture. Prayer is supposed to give us a quick high, make us feel good about ourselves; if it doesn’t — and oftentimes it doesn’t, because prayer is a battle — we can give up.
• From another side, some look at prayer as a flight from the world in reaction to activism; but Christian prayer is neither an escape from reality nor a divorce from life. Prayer is meant to help us to enter life with the Lord. Jesus says “come to me!,” “come follow me!” so that he can then say, “go!”, “go out to all the world and proclaim the Good News!”
• Perhaps the most common obstacle is that many Christians unconsciously regard prayer as something incompatible with all of the other things they have to do. Thus they say they “don’t have the time.” Other things come first. We talked about this last night. They believe in God, but somehow they’ve come to believe that God wants them to do all these other things before praying. They side with Martha over Mary, and the one thing necessary. Listen to Cardinal Van Thuan:
• CVT: “Action without prayer is useless in the sight of God — otherwise a robot could do more than you.”
• CVT: “Prayer is of prime importance in our lives; second is sacrifice; and only in third place is activity.”
• CVT: “It was not laziness that made Mary sit quietly at the Lord’s feet. Mary chose the better part: to listen to the Lord and allow his words to permeate her heart and soul and — working in and with her — to effect a change. What could be more active than interior renewal and transformation?”
• Finally those who seek God by prayer can become discouraged because they don’t know that prayer comes from HS and not from themselves alone. When they realize that prayer is not something that we can just turn on and off at will, discouragement can set in.
• Any of these can lead to conclusion: What good does it do to pray?
• To overcome these obstacles, the Catechism says that we must battle to gain
2) trust and
• Humble Vigilance of Heart
• The first thing we need is a humble seeking of the Lord, a humble vigilance of our heart. This is particularly important when we face difficulties and tempations in prayer.
• Facing temptations fighting against prayer
• The first battle we have to fight in the battle of prayer is to show up. Woody Allen says that half of the battle of human life is won when we just show up. Ultimately we want to show up, ready, with our body and soul and not just our body, but we have to get our mules there first for God to work. We need to be humble enough to report for duty.
• Two frequent temptations threaten prayer: lack of faith and acedia — a form of depression stemming from lax ascetical practice that leads to discouragement.
• LACK OF FAITH
• This is most common, yet most hidden temptation.
• Expresses itself by our actual preferences more than by declared incredulity.
• When we begin to pray, a thousand cares thought to be urgent vie for priority.
• It’s a moment of truth for the heart: what is its real love?
• Sometimes we turn to the Lord as a last resort, but do we really believe HE IS?
• Sometimes we engage him as an ally, but our heart remains presumptuous.
• We don’t yet share in the disposition of the humble heart, “apart from me, you can do nothing.”
• Prayer of the father of the epileptic boy, “Lord, I do believe. Help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24) we can make our own.
• This is a form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart.
• Presumption opens the gate here.
• Spirit is willing but flesh is weak (Mt 26:41).
• Painful as discouragement is, it is the reverse of presumption.
• Humble are not surprised by their distress; it leads them to trust more, to hold fast in constancy.
• Facing Difficulties in prayer
• Once we show up for prayer, we can face difficulties.
• The principal difficulties in the practice of prayer are distraction and dryness. The remedy lies in faith, conversion, and vigilance of heart.
• DISTRACTION is habitual difficulty.
• Can affect words and meaning in vocal prayer.
• Can concern God, to whom we are praying.
• If we set about hunting down distractions, we fall into their trap.
• What is necessary is to turn back our heart.
• We become aware that to which we’re attached, and then can humbly turn back to the Lord, offer him our preferential love and our purified heart.
• It provides a choice of a master to serve. If a distraction brings us to another commitment, better.
• We can say, “Lord, I’m weak and distracted again. If it be your will, please accept the offering of my effort. I love you.” This makes every distraction an opportunity for a sincere, humble act of love.
• Dryness belongs to contemplative prayer when heart is separated from God, with no taste for thoughts, memories, and feelings, even spiritual ones.
• Moment of sheer faith, clinging faithfully to Jesus in his agony and in his tomb.
• Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit.
• If dryness is due to lack of roots, because word has fallen on rocky soil, battle requires conversion.
• This is an opportunity for us to be attached ever more to the holy will of God, to the God of consolations instead of the consolations of God.
• We can unite ourselves to Jesus on the Cross, “O God, o God, why have you abandoned me?,” with filial trust knowing that the Lord has not abandoned us.
• “JME: You don’t know what to say to our Lord in prayer. Nothing comes to you and yet you would like to ask his advice about many things. Look: take some notes during the day of the things you want to think about in the presence of God. And then go with those notes to pray.”
• Filial Trust
• This is one of the chief virtues, along with humility and perseverance, that we need to cultivate to win the battle of prayer.
• Filial trust is put to the test when we feel that our prayer is not always heard. The Gospel invites us to ask ourselves about the conformity of our prayer to the desire of the Spirit.
• This is tested in tribulation.
• Principal difficulty concerns prayer of petition, for oneself and others in intercession.
• Some even stop praying, because they think their petition is not heard.
• Two questions arise:
1) Why do we think our petition has not been heard?
2) How is our prayer heard, how is it “efficacious?”
• Why do we complain of not being heard?
• We ought to be astonished that when we praise God or give him thanks for his benefits, we’re not often concerned by whether our prayer is acceptable to him.
• On other hand, we demand to see results of our petitions.
• What is the image of God that motivates our prayer? An instrument to be used? or the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?
• Are we convinced that we don’t know how to pray as we ought? (Rom 8:26).
• Are we asking God for “what is good for us?” or trying to determine that?
• Our Father knows what we need before we ask him (Mt 6:8 ), but he awaits our petitions because the dignity of his children lies in their freedom. We must pray, then, with his Spirit of freedom, to be able truly to know what He wants.
• JME: “It is Jesus who speaks: “Amen I say to you, ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you.” Pray! In what human venture can you have greater guarantee of success.”
• St. James: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas 4:3).
• God cannot answer us, because he desires our well-being, our life.
• If we enter into the desire of his Spirit, we shall be heard.
• Evagrius Ponticus: “Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer.”
• Garth Brooks, from song “Unanswered prayer.” Sometimes God knows that what we ask for will actually hurt us, as Garth discovered in wanting to marry beautiful girl in high school, who didn’t turn out to be so beautiful on the inside. God knew his real desire, but if he had married her, he would never have met future wife and had the time of joy he now experiences.
• Sr. Briege McKenna, delayed miracle. Brought about conversion of family.
• St. Monica; her prayers over 34 years, led to her sanctity.
• God wants that our desire should be exercised in prayer, so that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give us (St. Augustine). “Thy will be done!”
• CVT: “You believe that prayer is all-powerful, don’t you? Consider the Lord’s words, “Ask! and it shall be given to you; seek! and you shall find; knock! and it shall be opened to you.” Can any insurance company give you a more certain guarantee?”
• How is our prayer efficacious?
• Faith rests on God’s action in history.
• Our filial trust is enkindled by his supreme act: Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.
• Christian prayer is cooperation with God’s providence, his plan of love for men.
• If God did not even spare his own Son, would he not give us everything else besides?
• Transformation of our praying heart is the first response to our petition.
• Prayer of Jesus makes Christian prayer efficacious. He is its model, praying in us and with us.
• Since the heart of the Son seeks only what pleases the Father, how could the prayer of his children be centered on the gifts rather than the Giver?
• Jesus also prays for us — in our place and on our behalf.
• All our prayers were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross, heard by the Father.
• He never ceases to intercede for us (Heb 5:7).
• If our prayer is resolutely united with that of Jesus, in trust and boldness as children, we obtain all that we ask in his name, even more than any particular thing: the Holy Spirit himself, who contains all gifts.
• Need to let go of a willfulness in prayer, to say, trustingly, lovingly, “Thy will be done!”
• Persevering in love
• This is the third virtue we need to cultivate to win the battle of prayer.
• “Pray constantly… always and for everything give thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father (1Thess 5:17, Eph 5:20).
• “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance making supplication for all the saints” (Eph 6:18 ).
• We’ve been called not to work, keep watch or fast constantly, but to pray without ceasing (Evagrius Ponticus).
• This tireless fervor can come only from love.
• JME: “Persevere in prayer. Persevere, even when your efforts seem sterile. Prayer is always fruitful.”
• JME: ““He spent the whole night in prayer to God,” says St. Luke of our Lord. And you? How many times have you persevered like that? Well, then…”
• JME: “Look at the senseless reasons the enemy gives you for abandoning your prayer. “I have no time” — when you are constantly wasting it. “This is not for me.” “My heart is dry…” Prayer is not a question of what you say or feel, but of love. And you love when you try hard to say something to the Lord, even though you might not actually say anything.”
• Against dullness or laziness, battle of prayer is that of humble, trusting and persevering love.
• This love opens our hearts to three enlightening and life-giving facts of faith about prayer:
1) It is always possible to pray
• Christ is always with us, no matter what storms.
• Our time is in his hands.
• It is possible to pray while walking, driving, working, cooking, etc.
2) Prayer is a vital necessity
• If we don’t allow the HS to lead us, we fall back into the slavery of sin.
• How can the HS be our life if our heart is far from him?
• If we’re contantly and eagerly invoking God, it’s impossible to sin (St. John Chrysostom).
• Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned (St. Alphonsus)
3) Prayer and Christian life are inseparable
• They concern
• the same love and same renunciation,
• the same filial and loving conformity with the Father’s plan of love;
• the same transforming union with the HS conforming us more and more to Christ;
• the same love for all men, the love with which Jesus has loved us.
• This I command you, love one another.
• The one who prays without ceasing unites prayer to works and good works to prayer.
• Only in this way can we consider as realizable the principle of praying without ceasing.
• The goal of prayer is not to change God, but to be changed by God, whom we seek, find, obey, love and try to become more like in prayer.
• The key is to turn all possible distractions and difficulties into occasions of making acts of love to the Lord, trusting that he knows what we and others need more than we do, to say, “let it be done to be according to your word,” like the Blessed Mother, or “thy will be done!” like the Blessed Fruit of her womb.
• Prayer is indeed a battle, but it is one that if we remain with Christ, the victor over death, we will overcome.
Praised be Jesus Christ!