Feast of St Philip Neri
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
The ancient Greeks knew that asking the gods for favors was a dangerous business. They just might give you what you want. The same caution applied to the three wishes granted to those who freed genies from captivity. Choose your wishes very, very carefully. Though we no longer honor the Greek gods with our prayers nor believe that genies grant wishes, Christians still call on God for His help. We regularly petition Him to grant us the graces we need to survive and thrive. Since we are asking for help from an all-loving, all-knowing God, do we need to be careful when asking for what we need? St. Augustine thought so. He once famously prayed, “Lord, give me chastity and continence. . .but not yet.” Smart man. This prayer reveals both a desire for holiness and an awareness that holiness entails the radical transformation of the person praying. Augustine isn't asking for more time to sin; he's confessing his humility, his unworthiness for the gifts of chastity and continence. He simply isn't strong enough to honor these gifts as they deserve. Yes, be careful when you pray. Make sure you are ready for God's answer.
Case in point: James and John ask Jesus to grant them the seats of honor at his side. They want to be his Top Dog Apostles. Jesus replies to this foolish request: “You do not know what you are asking.” James and John are probably thinking about power and prestige; they want to be his heirs, successors to his throne. Jesus quickly deflates their dreams, “Can you drink the chalice that I drink. . .?” Of course, they say, “We can.” But they do not fully understand what drinking Christ's chalice means. To be the first among Christ's disciples means being the least of them all, the servant to all. It means taking a permanent demotion in status and power, stepping down the career ladder from Apostle to Slave. Not exactly what the ambitious brothers had in mind! If they had known themselves better, perhaps they would have exercised greater caution in asking for a sip from Christ's chalice.
Knowing what to pray for requires a keen sense of discernment. You have to know your flaws, your strengths, your gifts. You have to be intimately acquainted with both God's overall purpose for you and how you will freely cooperate with this plan. Are you prepared to receive the grace you are praying for? Well, who isn't ready to get a gift?! Ask the many lottery winners in the U.S. who have seen their lives destroyed by money. Ask those who have achieved their dreams of political power only to see themselves corrupted nearly beyond redemption. Ask those who exercise incredible gifts of artistic creativity but eventually find themselves sliding down the drain to insanity and addiction. Asking for a gift is a easy. Getting it and using it wisely can be much, much harder.
So, what assurance do we have that the graces we need, once granted, won't drown us in sorrow and regret? Every grace we receive from God is perfected by serving others. Jesus says to his disciples, “. . .whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” There is nothing spiritually dangerous about using God's gifts in the service of His people. No danger of pride. No danger of selfishness. No danger of remorse because you prayed for too much, too soon. We come to know ourselves best by coming to know God better and better in prayer. The best we can ask for is to serve, to be the least of all, the slave to all.
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