23rd Week OT (T)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sometimes, he grabs a boat and rows out to sea. Other times, he heads out into the desert, fasting and praying. He usually goes alone, but occasionally he takes along a select group of disciples. This time, with a largish gang of students trailing behind, Jesus goes out into the hills. There, among the rocks and sage brush, he spends the whole night in pray to God. We might wonder what's so special about the sea, the desert, and the hills when it comes time for Jesus to pray. Surely, he could just as easily find a quiet coffee shop or nice bookstore. Maybe a side chapel or park bench. What do seas, deserts, and hills have going for them that a serviceable college library carrel doesn't? Setting aside the anachronisms loaded into this question, let's take seriously the idea that prayer needs a location, a location specific to listening. If, as Aquinas teaches, “Christ's actions are our instructions,” what do we make of Jesus' tendency to flee to remote places in order to listen to God?
First, there's the obvious advantage of silence. Being in a quiet place is a kind of fasting, a sacrifice of music and noise. Whether your preferred noise is Mozart or Moby, Johnny Cash or Johnny Rotten, filling your ears symphonically or cacophonously can push out the Word you need to hear. Patterns become familiar. Rhythms become predictable. Lyrics repeat what you already know. Silence has no pattern, no rhythm, and its lyrics never repeat. It is the surprising strangeness of no-sound-at-all that smacks us awake to the long, novel reach of every possible sound.
When it comes time to pray, the second advantage that deserts and hills have over parks and malls is solitude. Like silence, chosen solitude is a form of fasting, sacrificing the company of family and friends in order to clear a time and space to entertain the presence of God. Filling every space in our days with someone else, with just anyone else, edges God out, leaving Him aside like an unfashionable handbag or a particularly ugly hat. The presence of people in our lives, however well-meaning and precious, can become too predictable, patterned and repetitious. Their familiarity and our comfort with them can distract and disarm, leaving us unable or unwilling to risk the dangers of being alone with God. What might He ask us to do? What truth might He reveal? Without family and friends to normalize these potentially bizarre revelations, we are left to wrestle single-handedly whichever angel God chooses to send.
Time alone with God in silence demands responsibility. Not just the moral kind, the kind where we are held morally accountable, but the kind where we are compelled to respond, seduced into answering Him. Without noise and companions to distract, disarm, normalize, and comfort, we have nothing and no one to fall back on when the weight of a decision presses in. What we say is ours alone to say. What we do is ours alone. Note well, however, Jesus always returns to the crowd; he always goes back to his disciples. He never just abandons the people he loves. He takes the silence and solitude of the deserts and hills and seas back to the madness of the crowds and to his questioning students. He shares out the fruits of his prayer, knowing that every mountain good for contemplation comes complete with level ground for preaching. Christ's actions are our instructions; therefore, pray alone in silence and then tell the Church what God has revealed to you. It just might be that the rest of us, noisy and busy, haven't been listening.
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