Friday, October 14, 2016

Faithfulness In Prayer

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

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Jesus tells us in this Sunday's gospel "to pray always without becoming weary" (Lk 18:1). How are we to interpret this? Isn't Jesus being just a bit unrealistic. Praying often, sure. But praying always? Come on, Jesus, be real.

Any time we think of Jesus is being unrealistic, we need to adjust our perspective. Jesus is the Author of Reality. He defines what is and is not real. And He does not demand of us anything that He does not give us the ability to achieve.  

Or perhaps we think this Sunday's readings mean that we can get whatever we want simply by praying long and hard enough. If we just keep asking God for the same thing over and over we will get our way.  Here again, if we are think prayer is about "getting what we want," we need to adjust our perspective. 

God is the object of our prayer. We are the subject. We pray to God because we long to speak with Him and listen to Him. But the point of prayer is for us to be changed, not God, who is never-changing. This is why Jesus teaches us to pray "Thy will be done" (Mt 6:10). He models this on the night before His passion during the agony in the garden, when He prays, "not My will, but Yours be done" (Lk 22:42). Prayer is not about changing God's mind: it is about changing our hearts. 

So why be persistent if prayer is not about trying to change God's mind?

Another word for persistence is faithfulness. St. Paul writes in the second reading (2 Tm 3:14-4:2) about the need to "remain faithful to what you have learned and believe," and to "be persistent" in proclaiming the word, even when it is inconvenient. Being faithful in prayer helps us to become more like God, Who is ever-faithful. It expresses a commitment that is not dependent upon any outside criteria or contingencies.  Praying to God always -- even when it is hard, even when we don't really feel like it -- demonstrates our faithfulness to Him in good times or in bad, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health (there is a reason we also use the word "faithfulness" in relation to marriage).

But the question remains -- how do we do it? It is one thing to say we should "pray always" as Christ does here, or to "pray without ceasing" as St. Paul does in 1 Thes 5:17. But how can we do this, when we have classes to attend, jobs to go to, meals to cook and eat, homework to do, laundry to wash, and countless other tasks of life?  Are we to abandon all responsibilities and walk around muttering while fingering our rosary beads like a crazy person in a psychological thriller?

One of the most important lessons about prayer I ever learned was from St. John Damascene, who defined prayer as "the raising of one's mind and heart to God" (CCC 2559).  If we are to pray always, we must expand our understanding of prayer. St. Theresa of Lisiuex, the "Little Flower," described her prayer as "a surge of the heart."  The 17th century Carmelite Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection described it as "practicing the presence of God."

Brother Lawrence writes:
The time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were on my knees (The Practice of the Presence of God).
Raising one's mind and heart to God means living your life aware that God is the preeminent reality. It means recognizing God as your maker and King, Who is also your beloved Father and Redeemer. It means that in all you do -- taking an exam, walking the dog, or working in the kitchen like Brother Lawrence -- you remain mindful of God as the most important part of your life, with love of Him in your heart, acting in a way pleasing to Him.

This is what it means to "pray always." But this does not excuse us of the need to also have specific times of prayer in our day. In fact, it demands it. For if we do not set aside specific times devoted to prayer, we will never develop the habit of praying always. Even Jesus, Who was always perfectly united with God the Father, spent regular times alone in prayer.

The Catechism defines prayer as the "personal relationship with the living and true God" (CCC 2558). Let that sink in for a moment. Prayer is not just something we do with God (or "at God" as many people approach prayer). Prayer is our relationship with God.

I wrote above about "faithfulness" being a word applied to marriage. In marriage, I am called to be faithful to my wife all the time, whether I am with her or not. As I go about my day, I'm never not aware of the fact that she is my wife. I think of her often. I may send her text messages, or call her to check in. All of these things are important to our relationship. Yet this ongoing faithfulness would not come as easily, nor would it be as meaningful, if we did not also set aside special time to be together as husband and wife.

This is what dedicated prayer time does for our relationship with God. It strengthens and sustains it. It increases our intimacy with Him. It is where we give ourselves the chance to fall in love with Him all over again. When we do so routinely, then it becomes second-nature to carry His presence with us throughout the rest of the day.

When Christ asks us to "pray always," He is asking us to "think of Me always," and "be with Me always." He is calling us to faithfulness in our relationship with Him. He is calling us to fall more in love with Him.  If that thought intimidates you, or if you simply don't know where to start, that's perfectly alright. You can begin your prayer by admitting to God, "I don't know how to pray as I ought," as St. Paul does in Romans 8:26. Then ask for His help and let Him guide you. Prayer is your relationship with God, and that means you never pray alone.

Ask God in your prayer to draw you into a deeper relationship with Him each day. Then be faithful. Be persistent. Relationships are strengthened over time. You may not notice a difference after just one or two days in prayer, but if you keep at it you will develop such a rich friendship with God that you will begin reflecting His goodness in your life. This is the secret of the saints. 

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