Sunday, July 24, 2016

Learning how to pray

St. Teresa Of Avila once commented, "How often I failed in my duty to God, because I was not leaning on the strong pillar of prayer." This is one of those judgments that we can only ever really apply to ourselves and never to other people. I readily admit that I do not lean on God nearly as often as I should. This is even true over the course of almost any given day. On the other hand, there are times when I have experienced quite concretely what it means to lean on the strong pillar of prayer, both during good times and in difficult times, as well as when it comes to praying for other people.

We are currently on the fifth of 20 Sundays during which, in Year C of the lectionary, we read through that part of St. Luke's Gospel known as "The Journey Narrative." This section comprises slightly less than half of Luke’s Gospel, running from 9:51 to 19:27. In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus only makes one trip to Jerusalem. During these weeks covering the summer and fall, we are invited to follow Jesus, as his disciples, as he makes his way to the Holy City.

In last week's Gospel reading we heard about Jesus' visit to the home of the sisters Martha and Mary. Jesus commended Mary for sitting at his feet and invited Martha, using what I can only imagine was a gentle rebuke, to do the same. Jesus' visit to the home of the sisters comprises the last five verses of the tenth chapter of Luke. Just as the Lord's visit shows us Jesus modeling what he instructed all who would be his disciples, as well as the seventy-two he sent out, to do (i.e., rely solely on God and bring peace to all who welcomed them) in the preceding two passages, it also points ahead to what follows: his teaching about about prayer.

Jesus' teaching on prayer, which constitutes roughly the first quarter of the thirteenth chapter of Luke, begins with St. Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer. Presumably after watching Jesus praying, his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, just as John taught his followers. Perhaps the most notable thing about this shorter version of the Lord's Prayer is that Jesus taught his disciples to call God "Father". This was quite a revolution because it was quite a revelation. Of course, we can only call God "our Father" because of Jesus Christ. St. Paul, in our second reading from his Letter to the Colossians, wrote that through baptism we died, were buried, and rose with Christ to new life. It is through this rebirth to life eternal that we become God's children and so, like Jesus, we can address him as Father.

The next thing Jesus taught his disciples about prayer, which is also exemplified by Abraham in our first reading from Genesis, in which our father in faith petitioned God repeatedly to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, is the need to persist in prayer. Each time Abraham asked God to lower the number of righteous people that needed to be found for the cities to be saved, God acceded, which might cause us to ask whether Abraham stopped petitioning too soon. Of course, that prompts a lot of fraught theological questions. I will not attempt to address those questions, I just offer it for consideration. I will say that these are the kinds of questions I am always interested in reading my Reformed friends' answers.

St. Teresa of Avila

It is not just the case that we have needs, but the very fact of our human existence makes us needy. As Fr. Julián Carrón noted, we are a need. Stated perhaps less emphatically, need is constitutive of being human. I have discovered personally that persistence in prayer over time changes not so much what I ask for, but how I ask, even why I ask. It emboldens me to ask in more specific, not more general, terms. It certainly doesn't stop me from asking for the outcome I deem best, like healing for someone who is sick, comfort for a person in grief, relief for a friend experiencing financial problems, a job for someone who is unemployed, a better job for someone who is underemployed, etc. While it should go without saying, it bears noting that I need to stand willing to assist those who have an urgent need. Like faith and works, prayer often requires some kind of action.

Finally, Jesus assured his disciples of our Father's goodness. He told them that their prayers do not go unheeded or unanswered. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is no. I've heard it said that God answers our prayers in one of three ways: No, Go, or Slow. While this is an oversimplification, I think it is spiritually useful. Sometimes we don't receive that for which we ask. Sometimes we do. Not infrequently, we don't receive it right away and, even then, not necessarily in the way we envisioned.

Even good parents sometimes say no their children, not arbitrarily or out of a desire to deny their children what they think will make them happy, but out of love and because, typically, being adults, parents hold a broader, deeper view than their children. It is often the case that what a child or an adolescent sees as harmless, or even good, a parent knows is harmful and/or bad. If that is true of human parents, how much more is it true of God, our Father? We must always hold in mind that God is about accomplishing what is good for us in the ultimate sense. I know for many this does not always seem like it's the case.

Jesus' teaching about God being a good father who answers the prayers of his children is a teaching that goes down much easier when you live a comfortable material existence, enjoy good health, have a family, friends, and a decent job. It is much more difficult to grasp for a person who is struggling and certainly for people whose entire life seems to be nothing but a struggle. Let's be honest, for some people, and perhaps for us sometimes, this teaching can seem like a cruel lie. Hence, it's important not be too sentimental about what Jesus taught, which really means being honest about our own experience, even as we remain committed to praying. Remember, later in St. Luke's Gospel (22:41-42), after he'd reached the Holy City, Jesus uttered a prayer, which was no doubt heard by the Father, that seemed to go answered. He resigned himself to doing the Father's will. The answer to his prayer was his glorious resurrection.

Certainly experiences of that Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila, demonstrate the importance of persevering in prayer and how prayer teaches us to do God's will and even teaches us something of what we might call the personality of God. Because Teresa visited the convents she founded, she frequently traveled Spain's rugged by-ways. During one journey the saddle on her donkey slipped and she discovered herself upside down under the donkey's belly as she crossed a creek. As she took her complaint to the Lord, she heard him say, "Teresa, whom the Lord loves, he chastises. This is how I treat all my friends." She famously replied, "No wonder you have so few!"

I will end this post on prayer with a prayer of petition: "Lord, teach us how to pray."

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