12 August 2012

On praying for death. . .

[NB.  As I spend part of my Squirrel Vacation contemplating, discerning, praying, etc. this homily from 2009 came to mind.]

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. 

The 2009 comments for this homily were interesting. . .check them out
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6 comments:

  1. Vacation Sunday homily...wow, Fr...!

    I haven't even read it yet but if the Redneck Squirrels allowed you to post it then please thank them on my behalf... :)

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    1. Now I did read it. Just this past week I was thinking about the Human Condition-Divine Providence "dialectic", so this one was again specially fruitful...thanks.

      As for the comments on the original post...some tough stuff there, indeed... ;)

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    2. MFT, to be honest. . .the Redneck Squirrels don't know I sneaked out to post. . .so, ssshhhh.

      I believe that Divine Providence is one of those Christian topics that confuse modern Americans terribly. Issues like suffering are so difficult for us b/c we've been indoctrinated to believe that We Deserve Only Good Things. IOW, we've been indoctrinated to ignore reality.

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  2. That dog'll hunt!

    Daniel Harrington, SJ, wrote "Why Do We Suffer?: A Scriptural Approach to the Human Condition". It's in my stack of books (unread) - there are a lot of books out there on this subject, so it must be popular. There is probably room for another one...

    Re: the comments, you have to be careful when discussing this subject. Your writing is vivid and draws a reader/listener right in, so that first paragraph could have been a bit much for someone currently going through, or having recently gone through, a rough time. I know those first few sentences took me right back to 3 years ago, when nearly those same words ("Enough!...)escaped my lips, not realizing it was a prayer, and at the moment of utter surrender the Lord was there: Palpably and quite unexpectedly there - present at my side. So this "old" homily would have, three years ago, been WAY too much for my then fragile emotional state (not necessarily a bad thing, but would have been very painful at the time). The penultimate paragraph was the most powerful for me - looking back, with the knowledge I now have, I can see the truth in it. But right in the middle of serious crisis? No, I wouldn't have been able to process that as a hopeful message, nor (without help) would I have been able to see that therein lay the "answer": the way through.

    Thanks for re-posting this. It's good to look back and see the journey, the path taken, difficult though it may have been - I wouldn't be the same without traveling through the darkness and despair.

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  3. Ah, padre', I've prayed for death a number of times over the last 15 years. He always says no. I am tired. Yet, still, I wake up every morning. I can still, through his grace smile at the sunrise, the breeze, a cup of coffee, a child's smile. He won't let me rest, but he still brings me joy. Still, I wish for an end, but am grateful for the smiles.

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    1. He's still got something for you to do!

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