Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Prayer Pierces the Heavens

The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C continue the theme of prayer.  In the first reading (Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18) we read: “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds….”

From time to time I’ve been asked, “What’s the point of praying? If God know everything and even knows what is in our hearts before we put words to our concerns and desires, what’s the point of praying? 

Our world is obsessed with action.  We tend to think of prayer as a last resort.  When practical action appears to be impossible we say, “Well, I guess I’ll just pray.”  “Just!?”  Is prayer a last resort rather than the first?

There is a line attributed to both St. Augustine and to St. Ignatius Loyola.  While the former may have written it, the latter, I’m told by the Jesuit historian Fr. John Padberg, did not.  In fact, St. Ignatius probably reversed the order of the saying.

The saying goes: “Pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on you.” 

It is good to recognize when we pray that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays within us (see Romans 8: 26-27).  And it is good to work hard.  But the reverse of the saying—“Pray as though everything depended on you and work as though everything depended on God”—makes more sense. 

In other words, we should put time, effort, and energy into our prayer, praying as though it’s up to us but knowing that grace is always a gift.  And we should work in such a way that we leave the results to God rather than thinking that our sheer effort will accomplish things. 

This is where the Gospel (Luke: 18: 9-14) comes in.  The Pharisee congratulates himself on his works and goes away unjustified, while the tax collector prays with humility and is said to go away justified.  The key, as we’ve heard in previous Sundays’ Gospels, is humility.

The word comes from “humus”—dust or earth.  Humility recognizes that I am not God, not in control, and cannot overcome every obstacle by my own effort and hard work. 

Humble or lowly prayer surrenders to God who created us to share in the love of the Trinity and the communion of all saints.  When we pray fervently and persistently, our prayer pierces the heavens and opens a channel for God’s grace and mercy to enter the world.  Like parents who show respect and love to their children, inviting them to work alongside of them though they do not need their help in assembling a toy or cooking a meal, God respects and loves us by including us in the work of caring for creation and the human family. 

Prayer is not so much changing God’s mind as opening ourselves up to Trinitarian Love and allowing God to transform us and work through us to transform the world.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pray Always and Don't Give Up!

The readings at Mass today (Twenty-ninth Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C) challenge us to pray with persistence.  In the Gospel (Luke 18: 1-8) Jesus tells "a parable about the necessity to pray always without becoming weary."  It's about a widow and a judge who refuses to take her case, but finally does because her persistence is wearing him out.  If uncaring people respond to persistence how much more will our caring God?

But we've all had experiences of praying and not receiving the good things for which we pray--like the health of loved ones.  A few years ago I prayed and prayed for Fr. Will Prospero, S.J. and he died of cancer at the age of 49.  My administrative assistant, Stephanie, died of leukemia at the age of 31.  Last April my good friend Fr. Ray Gawronski, S.J., 65 years old, died one month after he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. But one of my most painful losses was my sister Judy for whom I prayed fervently for years as she struggled with depression; she died of suicide two days before Christmas in 2003.

When we pray and nothing happens we ask: "Where are you, God?  Why don't you hear my prayers? Why don't you answer them?"

The truth is that God hears every prayer and knows what is in our hearts before we even put words to our desires and concerns.  Moreover, God answers every prayer.  Sometimes the answer is the one that Jesus received from his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane--"No."

"Why?" we ask.  We don't know why God answers some prayers in this way.  It challenges our faith that God is there and loves us.

Jesus ended his teaching in today's Gospel asking, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

What's the point of praying for specific intentions if God knows our desires and concerns even before we articulate them?  God does not want to act alone or apart from us and our cooperation.  God's love always respects our freedom.

We see that in the First Reading (Exodus 17: 8-13).  God chose to work through Moses and his prayer, symbolized by his upraised hands.  But he grew tired.  He needed others to help him pray. God shows us that when we grow weary in our prayer we have a community of believers to rely upon.  Prayer builds community.

The Apostleship of Prayer, now also known as the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network, is a community of millions of people around the world who pray each month for specific and important needs of the world and the Church.  There is power in this prayer, but it requires faith.  It requires persistence even when nothing seems to change or when things only get worse.

Pope Francis wrote about having the faith that empowers our prayer in his Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (#278-9):

"Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity. … Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation…. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force.  It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit."

Through the daily offering of our lives--every prayer, work, joy, and suffering--we can "pray always and not grow weary."  

Monday, October 3, 2016

Faith, Prayer, and Humility

The first reading from Sunday’s Mass (Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C) is from the Prophet Habakkuk. As you read the words with which it begins, what scene comes to mind? 

“How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”

What comes to my mind is Aleppo, Syria.  If you watch the news or read the paper with any compassion a prayer must well up: “How long, O Lord?  Why?”  We want God to intervene in this hopeless situation of the Syrian civil war. 

But God will not intervene except through us.  God won’t force his plan or his will on humanity. God won’t take human freedom away. 

God wants human cooperation to fulfill his plan.  When Jesus walked this earth his hands were tied by people’s lack of faith.  According to Matthew 13: 58, when Jesus returned to his native town of Nazareth, “he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.” 

The reading from Habakkuk ends with a vision of justice and peace.  Through the prophet God tells us to be patient and to have faith. 

In the Gospel (Luke 17: 5-10), the apostles ask Jesus: “Increase our faith.”  Jesus responds with an image of impossibility—that faith the size of a small seed can uproot a tree and send it into the sea.  Isn’t peace just as or more impossible?  But faith and prayer can do the impossible. God and the human person working together can bring about miracles no less impossible as the displacement of trees. 

One such miracle was the survival of several Jesuits who were in Hiroshima at ground zero when the first atomic bomb was dropped.  (See my blog post of August 6, 2016.)  Not only did they survive the initial blast but subsequently none of them experienced the effects of radiation.  How was this possible?  Fr. Hubert Schiffer, S.J. said it was because they prayed the rosary and lived the message of Fatima.

If you go to Fatima today you will see the results of another miracle.  There is a large piece of the Berlin Wall on display.  Why?  It tells us that faith-filled prayer brought down that wall and the Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that it represented.  Faith and prayer can bring down walls and change governments.  It can transform hardened hearts.

But in the second part of the Gospel Jesus tells us that something else needs to accompany faith.  Perhaps it is an essential ingredient of real faith.  Humility.  Humility recognizes one’s true condition.  We are not masters of ourselves but servants of God.  We cannot trust in ourselves but only in God.  Humility is a foundational virtue because all the others—even charity, which St. Paul called the greatest (1 Corinthians 13: 13)—can become a source of pride that ultimately leads us to think that we are all-powerful and in control. 

Jesus shows us the way of humility, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2: 7), bending down and washing feet (John 13: 1-16), and offering himself on a cross for our salvation.  His focus is not on himself but on God the Father and God’s other human children.  In the Eucharist he continues to humble himself, making present his life-saving death and resurrection and then giving himself to us under the humble appearances of bread and wine.  In the Eucharist he invites us to sit and dine while he serves us!

The vision of peace is possible but its realization requires faith-filled prayer.  The greatest prayer is the Eucharist where Jesus gives himself to us to transform us.  Here we receive the Body and Blood, soul and divinity, including the Sacred Heart, to tear down the walls that separate us and to transform our hearts.