09 August 2009

We must pray for death

[NB. I welcome feedback on my all homilies. . .I am particularly interested in hearing what readers think of this one. . .feedback from Mass goers this morning was positive, but people rarely tell you in person if your homily bombed. Also, I would really appreciate hearing from deacons/priests/bishops who might read this piece. . .]

19th Sunday OT: 1 Kings 19.4-8; Eph 4.30-5.2; John 6.41-51
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas

Elijah, the prophet of God, prays for death: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life. . .” How thick, how deep must your despair be to pray for death? How heavy must your desperation be before you can no longer lift it? When do you cry to God: this is enough! Here and now, I am exhausted, weary beyond living. Elijah killed 450 prophets of Baal. For this reason, he confesses to his Lord, “. . .I am no better than my fathers. Take my life.” Elijah challenges Baal's prophets to a contest of power. He pits the real power of the Lord against the demonic power of the Canaanite god. Baal loses. And so do his prophets. Elijah marches the demon's priests to the River Kishon and cuts their throats. Fleeing the wrath of Jezebel for killing her prophets, Elijah goes into the desert and there he discovers—among the stones and sage brush—that he no longer wants to live. “This is enough, O Lord. Take my life. . .” Elijah, prophet of God, touched by His hand to speak His Word, despairs because he has murdered 450 men. What weight do you lift and carry? How thick and deep is the mire you must wade through? At what point do you surrender to God in anguish, walk into the desert, and pray for death? When you balance on the sharp point of desperation, poised to ask God to take your life, remember this: “When the afflicted call out, the Lord hears, and from all their distress He saves them! Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!”

To varying degrees and in different ways, all of us have discovered in one sort of desert or another that we are tired, exhausted beyond going another step. Overwhelmed by studies, financial stresses, marital strife, family feuds, personal sin, physical illness, we have all felt abandoned, stranded. We might say that it is nothing more than our lot in life to rejoice when our blessings are multiplied and cry when the well runs dry. These deserts look familiar. We've been here before and doubting not one whit, we know we will visit them again. We hope and keep on; we pray and trust in God. This is what we do, we who live near the cross. But there are those times when the desert seems endless and only death will bring rescue. We find hope in dying. And so, we cry out to God: “Take my life, O Lord!” Is this the prayer we should pray when we find ourselves broken and bleeding in the deserts of despair? It is. There is none better.

The witness of scripture pokes at us to remember that our God provides. Beaten down and hunted by Jezebel, exhausted by his prayer, Elijah falls asleep under the broom tree. An angel comes to him twice with food and drink, ordering him to wake up and eat: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” Elijah obeys. Strengthened by the angelic supper, he walks for forty days and nights; he walks to God on Mt. Horeb. The Lord provides. Jesus reminds the Jews who are murmuring about his teaching that their ancestors wandered around in the desert for forty years, surviving on angelic food. Though they died as we all do, and despite their constant despairing, they survived as a people to arrive in the land promised to them by God. As always, the Lord provides. Paul reminds the Ephesians (and us) that Christ handed himself over “as a sacrificial offering to God” for us, thus giving us access to the Father's bounty, eternal access to only food and drink we will ever need to survive. Paul writes, “. . .you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Therefore, “. . .be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” We always have before us the feast of mercy. The Lord provides. So, wake up! And eat!

What are we promised, and what is provided? Even the slightest glance at scripture, even the most cursory perusal of our Christian history will reveal that following Christ on pilgrimage to the cross is no picnic. To paraphrase Lynn Anderson, “He never promised us a rose garden.” Sure, Christ promised us a garden alright. But it's the Garden of Gethsemane. Betrayal, blood, and a sacrificial death. He also promised us persecution, trial, conviction, and exile. He promised us nothing more than what he himself received as the Messiah. A life of hardship as a witness and the authority of the Word. The burdens of preaching mercy and the rewards of telling the truth. An ignoble death on a cross and a glorious resurrection from the tomb. What he promises, he provides. All that he provides is given from His Father's treasury. Food and drink on the way. The peace of reconciliation. A Father's love for His children. And an eternal life lived in worship before the throne.

All of this is given freely to us. But we must freely receive all that is given. Elijah flees into the desert, seeking his freedom from Jezebel's wrath. The former slaves of Egypt flee into the desert, seeking their freedom from Pharaoh's whip. The men and women of Ephesus flee into the desert of repentance and conversion, seeking their freedom from the slavery of sin. Each time we flee into a desert to despair, we are fleeing from the worries, the burdens of living day-to-day the promises we have made to follow Christ to the cross. Our lives are not made easier by baptism and the Eucharist. Our anxieties are not made simpler through prayer and fasting. Our pains, our sufferings are not relieved by the saints or the Blessed Mother. Our lives, anxieties, our pain and sufferings are made sacrificial by the promises of Christ and all that he provides. We are not made less human by striving to be Christ-like. We are not brought to physical and psychological bliss by walking the way of sorrows. We are not promised lives free of betrayal, blood, injury, and death. By striving to be Christ-like, by walking behind our Lord on the way of sorrows, we are all but guaranteeing that we will suffer for his sake. And so, the most fervent prayer we can pray along this Christian path is: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life. . .!” Surrender and receive, give up and feast. Surrender your life and receive God's blessing. Give up your suffering and feast on the bread of heaven.

What Christ promises, he provides. He says to those behind him, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Exhausted under a tree and running for your life; pitiful and despairing, wandering lost in a desert; chained to sin, wallowing in disobedience, yet seeking mercy. . .where do you find yourself? Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Are you exhausted? Spent? Do you need to be rescued? Cry out then, “Take my life, O Lord. . .” Pray for death. Pray for the death of Self. Pray for the death of “bitterness, fury, anger, reviling, and malice.” Pray for the death of whatever it is in you that obstructs your path to Christ; pray that it “be removed from you. . .So [you may] be [an] imitator of God, as [a] beloved child[], and live in love, as Christ loves us.” Remember and never forget: “When the afflicted call out, the Lord hears, and from all their distress He saves them! Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!” The bread come down from heaven, Christ himself, is our promised food and our provision for eternal life.


  1. Oh, boy, did I ever need to "hear" that. I was the lector who got to read it at Mass, and I could barely do it without crying. I am following Christ in a particular way that leads to being misunderstood and judged and I get so worn down that I feel like I can't do even the simplest thing right. My protestant background tells me that if I were doing the right thing, I would feel better, but that isn't the way things are going. I'm getting used to the idea that periodically I'm just going to feel awful for a few days. I hate it, but I can't imagine leaving the path I'm on. It's so full of grace that somehow it's actually worth it.

  2. This is a great message, Father. The call to sacrifice is rarely well-received, of course, but we all need to hear it. Preach on.

  3. Anonymous5:55 PM


    Why do you think that life has as its center the Cross, as you point to here? Could it have been any different? Why does it often 'feel' like there is no mercy, no salvation, no end to the seeming separation between our lives and final joy?


  4. Just, I found as a Prot that the Happy-Clappy Jesus was dangerous. Jesus never, never promised us an easy road. Never. Evil people win. Good people suffer. What Christ does is teach us HOW to suffer for the sake of others. This will bring happiness...not happy-clappy happiness but ultimate, eternal happiness.

    Patrick, the cross is our goal in this life, if by "cross" we mean "the doorway between heaven and earth." The cross is not our final end, of course, heaven is. That we feel joyless, without mercy, etc. is attributable to the mistake we often make in thinking that joy, happiness, etc, mean "feeling refreshed, full of energy," etc. We first believe, then we understand. Feelings have nothing to do with it. Our passions are fleeting and mercurial...they can be most anything at anytime. One of the great errors of Catholic theology in the last 40 yrs is the elevation of feelings to the level of proof of holiness. St Jerome was a miserable SOB. Padre Pio was not happy in any secular meaning of the word. We are called to holiness by following Christ. We have never been called to contentment or physical satisfaction.

  5. Father, this is what you should be writing a book about. God Bless

  6. I'll have to come back and read the homily in depth at home in a more sane environment (okay, maybe home isn't the best place for that.) But I can share this.

    about 4 years ago a Baptist missionary's wife shared with a group of Mothers of Preschoolers one of the more profound statements I've heard....

    "marriage is more about our HOLY-NESS than our HAPPINESS"

    point being that we are called (in this case as wives and mothers) to self-sacrifice and generocity....we ain't called to be happy.

  7. Mom,

    Let me be a Dominican and make a distinction to clarify my point to Patrick...

    We are called BY Happiness through holiness to God--meaning, by nature we seek happiness; by grace we seek the Highest Happiness, God.

    We are all called to self-sacrifice and generosity--men in one area and women in another. Christ makes our sacrifice and generosity effective for ourselves and others through his generous sacrifice on the cross.

    My problem with "happiness" is the way it is defined in secular terms to mean only "feeling good or having lots of stuff." Both of these can be happy goals, properly understood, but they are not The Happy Goal Himself.

  8. Cathy,

    Really? Do you think people would read that much about this subject?

  9. Marc Porter6:03 AM


    I would most definitely read a book on this subject. Please do so.

  10. Yes Father, I do.

    I am the mother of 8 children and it is a constant battle to overcome society's "it is only good if it feels good" attitude. The truth, as you state, is that often times choosing what hurts most is what is right. I am not speaking about being a martyr either, sometimes simply saying yes to helping an aging parent is what hurts, because we can't do what we want to when we want to. The world needs to hear about the eternal benefits of self denial.


  11. I'd read a book on that defining happiness through christ stuff....sooner or later it might even sink in!!

  12. All I can say is that I've been right there with the prophet more than one time in my life. No angel ever showed up with lunch, but God has provided a way through some extremely trying times physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

  13. Anonymous9:45 AM

    I'll second the book idea.

    I need something more than "offer it up" when I'm too beaten down to lift it up. JP2's encyclical was over my head. Kreeft's book on suffering was a little better but still not enough.

    I take it on faith from Scripture that my pain matters. I just wish I had something that explained WHY and HOW and WHAT to do in the thick of it.

    Love the homily. I'd buy a collection of a hundred like this in a hearbeat.

    Memphis, TN

  14. Father,

    I agree with Cathy. A book on this subject written the same way as your homily, would be helpful to many people. We are constantly bombarded with ways to be "happy" in the media, not to mention our own emotions and feelings that play havoc with our journey to the Lord. I for one would benefit from solid teaching on this subject. Thank you for this homily. I'm going to print it out and read it carefully again.


  15. Anonymous12:45 PM

    Fr. Powell,

    I can't tell you how "close to home" this homily hits. I have [literally] prayed for death nightly for a few months. I am definitely in the desert. I have lost EVERYTHING. Moreover, MOST people seem to treat the situation as if it's contagious. They are afraid to be near suffering.

    The good part? My prayer has deepened and I experience what can only be termed as bliss when I read scripture or pray.

    I have none of my former wealth, status, etc. But I do have my spiritual moorings. I will be frank: there are some things that you write that "rile" me.

    This, however, is beyond lovely. And it is much needed in this time of "you've manifested your situation." Suffering is not supposed to exist in this, our "new" age. Malarky.

    Look at what they did to Christ. Do I deserve better?

    Thank you for posting the homily.

    It should definitely be an article, a book, a podcast. Something to combat the daily "guilt" one feels if one "manifests their destiny.' I could go on...

    But, once again, thank you.

    Name withheld for obvious reasons

  16. Well done, Padre'. I've prayed a number of times for God to bring me home. Lonliness and constant pain will bring you down sometimes. Yet, through it all, He was always with me. Giving me the strength to continue on. At these times, I always find the Book of Job, as well as Psalms a comfort. Then, I thank God for my life, such as it is. After all, it could be worse. I could not know Him! Amen!

  17. michael6:02 PM

    Father. Your homily came a little too late for me but in a good way. For the last few months I have been dating someone but knew inside that it was time to actively discern a religious vocation. I resisted ending the relationship, in large part because I had a hard time bearing the burden of making her sad/hurting her. But the consequence was that I became burdened and would frequently wish and pray that my life would end so I would not have to make this decision. We broke up last week and almost immediately after I started receiving many spiritual consolations. This is the long way of saying that I could totally identify with the things you said in your homily. I also did not connect the reading to this on my own this weekend so help in realizing the similarity is also very much appreciated.

  18. Anonymous6:14 PM

    Thank you Father. Will we ever 'feel' better, feel the joy--perhaps in heaven?

    Is St. Jerome, in heaven, still a miserable SOB?

    I suppose I just don't understand what the point of all this life stuff is. It all seems so dead and empty and desolate.


  19. sekman9:56 PM

    I find your homilies very interesting but must admit that I listened very little to them. From my observations they are much more exegetical than catechetical, exegesis/emphasis on scripture is a good in today's time as Catholics know so little about scripture however I wish that all priests would give the lay faithful instruction in the teachings of the church, today so many are so ignorant we need concrete teaching and instruction not fluffy abstract opinions. Please note Father I am not directly criticizing yourself but rather making a generalized statement as to what I believe needs to be said to all priests.

  20. Sekman,

    What you are asking for is usually called "doctrinal preaching." There's one sure way of starting a fight among Dominicans...mention the need for more doctrinal preaching! It can get ugly. I am working on a plan for offering a retreat/workshop on doctrinal preaching to the newly ordained. Maybe summer of 2011.

    D.P. is hard to do b/c preaching is not teaching. If you read my homilies closely enough you might see some D.P. in them. Occasionally, I have dropped all pretense and just dived right in, offering an explicit "lesson" on grace. But it's hard to do well.

    Thanks for the comments! And it's perfectly fine to criticize...just be nice about it. ;-)

  21. Late comment--sorry, been away a few days, only just read the homily!

    This homily had teeth. When you brought up the example of Elijah praying for death, I immediately thought of both Tobit and Sarah from the book of Tobit, who also prayed for death, but Elijah was a better, stronger example. Good job on that!

    I admit to having a bit of a problem with the fifth (next to last) paragraph. "Our anxieties are not made simpler through prayer and fasting. Our pains, our sufferings are not relieved by the saints or the Blessed Mother." I disagree, wholeheartedly. Prayer is a great blessing and help for anxiety and suffering. Cry out to the Lord! Just understand that He may or may not answer and if He does, it may be in a way that you won't see coming.

    I agree with previous posters that this subject of suffering might be a good basis for a book. Sure, there's plenty out there on suffering, but a lot of it is dated. How do we approach suffering in a "feel-good" culture?

    Not that there's anything wrong with being happy, but you can't be happy all the time. Life doesn't work that way. And yet, somewhere, somehow, the idea has crept (slithered?) into our communal psyche that we CAN be happy all the time, if we just [insert sin here].

    But I'm babbling now. Great homily, Father. You've hit a nerve here. Might be worth exploring further. Good luck with that.

  22. For all of us who get stuck in the "desert" from time to time (sometimes seemingly forever!), this homily definitely hit the nail on the head. Thank you, Father -- we need to hear preaching like this more often. God bless you.

  23. How shockingly obvious! What unforeseeable common sense!

    Here is a man who does not hesitate to challenge the sins of the king and queen directly to their faces, a man who rides a chariot to heaven and appears standing beside the Lord Himself at the Transfiguration.

    Nevertheless, trained to think puny thoughts, I hear of Elijah lying by the broom tree, and what do I think? Feeling sorry for himself. Wallowing in self pity. Shameless...

    After 55 years, I should no longer be shocked to discover that I've totally missed the point. Better simply to say "thank you" upon each release from the captivity of cramped, confined viewpoints.

    Thank you.

  24. Anonymous11:45 AM

    I suffer from chronic pain. Every facet of my life is touched by my unrelenting pain. On Sunday, when I read Elijah had asked the Lord to give him death, I did so relate to this passage. I believe I am ready to die and be finished with this pain, but I have a son who took his own life because of undiagnosed depression. I know how much grief is associated with losing a son. People have told me I have had the same feeling God had when Jesus died. This has been no comfort, so I struggle to find ood reasons to continue living with this pain. So this week started with my thoughts of praying for relief through death. Then Siunday night my daughter is arrested for her second Aggravated DUI at .34BAC. Then, I retrieve her car from the impound lot and start cleaning out the car. In the trunk of the car, I find a folder that was given to her at the hospital in May after she had been treated for injuries she sustained in a rape she had not disclosed to me. Her mother knew, but withheld this from me. I want to know who did this to my daughter so I can seek revenge, possibly by killing him. It seem the Lord has set me up for the perfect scenario to pray for an end to my life. I will gladly except execution as my penalty for killing my daughter's attacker. I can Oh so much relate to my friend Elijah. I never thought I would look forward to dying, but I was there in church and I feel closer than ever in my desire to be done with my life. I am damaged and I feel worthless. I know God hears my call to him, but I called out to him for remedy on Sunday and it seems his response was learning how I have failed my daughter. I am in despair and in dire need of areason to live as I am. I just don't see one now. Am I insane?

  25. Anon.,

    I don't think you are insane in any conventional sense. You may be overwhelmed by passion, which is a kind of frenzied release of control.

    You assume that God lead you to the discovery of your daughter's rape? Why? If you are verging on despair and ready to die, then it might seem likely that the Devil would do something to tip you over.

    Vengeance is control not surrender. Violence too is control. Not surrender. Read again what Paul asks the Ephesians to surrender in order to meet God in righteousness..."bitterness, fury, anger, reviling, and malice.”

    What does the Psalmist say, "God hears the cries of the afflicted and answers them!" And sometimes he answers them with a job to do.

    I urge you to go see your pastor or S.D. and begin talking and praying about some of this stuff. I am willing to bet that you are right at the edge of a wonderful spiritual breakthrough...but it will take endurance.

    Go. Talk. To. Someone. NOW!

  26. Jo Court3:56 PM

    Wow, I have suffered 20 years of clinical depression and have felt nothing but pain and persecution due to a very long run of bad luck. My pain helps me to reach out and help other people in similar circumstances, I am very much an agony aunt,confidant and friend to many. After many years of just wanting to die every day, I am starting to think that God gave me these trials to help others....Thanks for your wonderful words x

  27. Anonymous10:35 AM

    To the original writer, I just stumbled to this site while trying to solve the hardest question I know yet. I've prayed for death since childhood. I've come to love the Lord with all of my being. I have suffered (as you say, willingly) trying to help others. America is opposite of God's word. When the Lord helped me to meet sincere people, I've loved it so much. This country continues to willingly beat me senseless. Though I thank the Lord for taking my family from me years ago at 35, I've been through a coma three times, amnesia three times, etc... He is with me. For the longest time, I've prayed every night for death and cry when I wake up. I can't help americans, because they are gods amongst theirselves. At 45, I am at least in my 80's. Yesterday, I remembered the quote in the Bible, '...shall pray for death, but it will not come'. The more and more I try to find it, it seems I remember, 'The wicked shall pray for death, but...' I need to find this verse. If I do not, I know I am Lucifer. All assistance is greatly appreciated. It seems the cliche, God answers all prayers is false because I've prayed for death so long and at the certain time, but it did not happen. Thank you for the story you wrote on home page; at least I know Elijah also did, and he was also a follower of the Lord.