20 October 2013

With the stubbornness of a rented mule

29th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

St Dominic/Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Pray always. Pray always without ceasing. Pray always without ceasing, AND do not grow weary. Is there anything we can do always and without ceasing that doesn't make us grow weary? Even those things that we love to do will eventually grind us down, exhaust our reserves, and cause us to crash and burn, so why should prayer be any different? Why wouldn't a ceaseless conversation with God wear us out? The intense focus required: brow creasing, eyes squinting, lips running. Your mind flipping through catalog after catalog of petitions, names, causes, needs, and wants. Memory stoking conscious thought with prayerful fuel: pious phrases; exhortations; the names of interceding saints; useful titles for Mary and the angels. Fingers counting out beads, or shuffling through stacks of holy cards; eyes picking out the details of a statue, a station, or a crucifix. Bowing, kneeling, standing, maybe even crawling, only to stand again and genuflect. Why doesn't a ceaseless conversation with God wear us out? Maybe it should. But it doesn't. Perseverance in prayer—always, without ceasing—cannot weary us b/c prayer is our direct line to the source and summit, the center and ground of our very being: God who is Love Himself. 

Pray always, without ceasing and do not grow weary. Be persistent, persevering in prayer. That sounds good. It sounds like the sort of advice we want to hear from the pulpit. We want to hear our preachers exhort us to be persistent, to be persevering, but let's be frank with one another. Words like “persistent” and “perseverance” are just the polite substitutes we use to disguise a vulgar truth: a successful prayer-life requires a bull-headed stubbornness. I mean something akin to the sort of stubbornness that we expect from a rented mule*; or the iron will of a two year old refusing her nap time. We're talking about a level of determination and dedication that would make an Olympic gold-medalist blush with shame at his own laziness. If you will live a life in God's blessing, weariness is not an option. Why not? B/c the stakes are too high. B/c the costs of laxity are too great. Consider: prayer does nothing to change the mind of God. Prayer changes the pray-er. If we cannot or will not recognize the blessings that God has poured out for us, it's likely b/c we have failed to be stubborn enough in using prayer to open our eyes to see. His gifts never stop coming; they never cease flowing. If we will to see and receive His gifts, our prayer can never cease. Gratitude must always be on our lips. 

The Catechism teaches us: “Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort [b/c] prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter. . .” (2725). Prayer would be a burden if it were not a gift. But b/c it is a gift, it is not only not a burden but a necessary weapon, a weapon against temptation and our own obstinate disobedience. As we daily receive the gift of prayer and use it stubbornly, our disobedience is muted; the chains of sin are loosened; and find ourselves freer and freer to pursue the holiness we were created to pursue. The CCC says, “We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. . .The 'spiritual battle' of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer” (2725). Don't balk at the image of the Christian life as a battle, or the idea that prayer is a weapon in that battle. We are in a fight—don't doubt it—a fight against ourselves, the world, and the Enemy of Life itself. That direct line to the source and summit, the center and ground of our being—Love Himself—feeds and nurtures us in this fight. To let it go, to surrender this life-line to our Strength is dangerous; I daresay, suicidal. In the middle of a fight for your life, your eternal life, you do not abandon your only means of victory.

Writing to his disciple, Timothy, Paul urges, “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed. . .I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. . .proclaim the word; be persistent. . .” Remain faithful; be persistent. Why this focus on endurance, tenacity? Aren't we called as Christians to be tolerant and flexible? Aren't we supposed to be willing to compromise in conflict? That's what “love your neighbor” is all about, right? I mean, how do we love others and at the same time remain faithful to what we have learned, if what we have learned conflicts with Christ's command to love? When we love our neighbors, we participate in Love who is God Himself. He is also Truth and Goodness, so we can only love in the presence of the True and the Good. Paul's admonition to remain faithful and to persist in the Truth is a warning to us not to forget that we are vowed to proclaim the Word, the Word who became flesh and bone and died for us. We can only fulfill our vow if we stubbornly refuse to surrender our direct line to Love Himself, only if we tenaciously guard against the temptation to compromise what we have learned and believe. 

How do we keep the weapon of prayer honed and well-oiled? By using it, daily using the gift. What happens when we become distracted in prayer? Those aren't distractions you're experiencing. That's the Holy Spirit showing you who and what needs prayer. What about those dry periods when it appears that God isn't hearing us? He always hears us. Dryness comes when we aren't listening. The surest way of ending a dry-spell is to turn your prayer to gratitude. Gratitude grows humility and humility unplugs the ears. What about finding the time to pray? If you are still breathing, there's time to pray. Talk to God about washing the dishes; driving the kids to school; paying the bills; cooking dinner; mowing the yard. Keep a running conversation going about whatever it is you're doing. What if we grow weary of prayer? Ask yourself: am I tired of being loved? Am I exhausted by being forgiven? If you grow weary of prayer, then tell God that you are weary and give Him thanks for being alive to feel weary! If all you have to say to God is “O Lord! I am so weary!” then say that. Say it until you're no longer weary and then give Him thanks for the gift of being able to tell Him so.

I urged you earlier not to doubt that your life as a Christian is a battle and not to forget that prayer is your greatest weapon. Let me add: prayer is not a technique or a method. It takes no special training, no weekend seminar, or bookshelf full of How-To guides. You don't need to learn how to pray b/c God taught you to pray the moment you were conceived. He engraved into each one of us an indelible desire to seek Him out and live Him forever. In other words, in the great game of life, God made the first move and He continues to make the first move with every breath we take. If we're to be stubborn in prayer, then all we need to do is make each and every breath an exhalation of thanksgiving and praise. Breath in His gifts, breath out our gratitude. If you grow weary of prayer, then I must ask: have you grown weary of breathing? We live, move, have our being in the enduring presence of Love Himself. Prayer is no more difficult than seeing, hearing, touching, feeling His presence as we live and move. Stubbornly refuse then to be moved from His loving-care and just as stubbornly give Him constant thanks. 

*I was asked by a City Boy last night after Mass why a rented mule would be considered particularly stubborn. The idea came from the saying, "They work me like a rented mule," meaning, they worked me hard b/c they do not own me and will therefore not lose anything of value if I were to die while working. A rented mule would be especially stubborn b/c he is usually worked too hard.

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