24 July 2016

Who are you in prayer?

17th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
John the Baptist teaches his disciples how to pray. The Pharisees and the Sadducees know how to pray. The Zealots and the scribes can pray. Even the Roman occupiers—with their home altars and idols—know how to pray. Why don't the disciples of Christ know how to ask God for what they need? How could they spend so much time with Christ and not understand the basic rules and methods of prayer? Well, part of the reason could be that every time he needs to pray, Jesus runs off to the hills or the desert, or gets in a boat and flees the crowds. He needs some space, some time alone to properly pray. It could be that pretty much all he does with the disciples is teach, preach, and heal. Or it could be that he is teaching them to pray all along and they don't recognize the lessons for what they are. Regardless, they wanted to learn to pray, so they ask a Master for instruction. What does Jesus teach them? He teaches them that prayer is first about knowing who and what you are in relationship with God. And that knowing and understanding this relationship to God brings exactly what you need.

So, who are we in relationship with God? “Man is a beggar before God.” So says St. Augustine. And he's right. But being a beggar before God and knowing that we're beggars before God are two very different things. What separates the truth from our ignorance is the sin of pride, more specifically, the lack of humility before God and His gifts. We are beggars but we don't know how to beg well b/c we do not yet fully understand what we truly need to thrive as children of God. To learn what we truly need, we must embrace a life of discipleship, the life of a student and learn to beg at the feet of a Master. The disciples—Jesus' students—realize this, so they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And he gives them The Lord's Prayer. He gives them not only the words to pray but shows them the proper attitude of prayer: humility, not demeaning groveling or sniveling toadyism but the truly, deeply held understanding of their creaturely nature. Like all created things, we are wholly dependent on God for our being, for our very existence. Absent this basic understanding of our nature, we cannot properly ask God for anything useful, for anything at all helpful to our flourishing. Humility, then, is the foundation of prayer.

Recognizing our total dependence on God for absolutely everything, we can begin our lessons in how to beg. First, asking God for what we need is not the be-all and end-all of prayer. St. Thérèse of Lisieux writes in her autobiography, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” This surge of the heart might be humility rolling out in force; or it might be delight in love, or anguish during trial. What does she recognize while praying? Does she see her end, her purpose? Does she see-again Christ's love for her on his cross? Maybe she is reminded that she is a creature, a made-being who has been remade in her freedom from sin? Begging before God is fundamentally about knowing who and what we are before a thought or a word can form; before we can even name our need, we must know that Love draws us to beg; Love seduces us into prayer and teaches us to ask. That we must ask is itself a gift precisely b/c the need to ask pulls us into a tighter union with God. This is why Jesus teaches his students to begin their prayer, “Our Father. . .” Our source. Our beginning. Our origin. Think about it: You cannot ask for directions if you do not know where you are going. And you cannot ask for directions unless you know how to speak to the One Who knows the way.

Abraham learns to speak to God, and finds his way. In what may look like a flea market negotiation, Abraham and God haggle over the fate of Sodom-Gomorrah. Back and forth they propose and counter-propose the acceptable number of righteous citizens allowable to save the city from destruction. God finally settles on the not destroying the city if Abraham can find ten righteous souls. The lesson seems to be: God is reasonable with our demands if we are properly respectable but persistent, even if we're trying to save a cesspool like Sodom. Wrong. This story has little to do with sinful Sodom and more to do with Abraham learning the true nature of the God he serves. With each step in the negotiation with God, Abraham learns that the Lord hears, listens, and concedes not b/c Abraham is persistent or respectable or desperately needful but b/c God is merciful. How is his mercy made real in the world? At the request of His faithful servants! God wills that we ask for what we need so that His mercy and generosity can be made manifest, so that His mighty works can be seen and bear witness to His saving love. But in order for that to happen, we must ask for, receive, and then make known the blessings He pours out for us.

So, the first lesson about prayer is that we must know and understand who and what we are in relationship with God: dependent creatures. The second lesson is that prayer—undertaken with all humility in recognition of our creatureliness—releases the already given blessings of God for us to receive. The third lesson is that receiving God's blessings always and immediately merits copious thanksgiving. Gratitude is the essential ingredient in humility. Try making a roux without fat. Gumbo without filé. Try celebrating Madri Gras without beads. Won't work. Humility without genuine gratitude is simply a less obnoxious form of pride. When we receive a blessing from God, our gratitude, our expressed gratitude, deepens and strengthens our bond to God and purifies our humility. If humility is the foundation of prayer, then giving thanks for the blessings we receive reinforces the ground upon which we stand to pray. We come to know ourselves more fully. We come to see and hear God more clearly. And the bonds of divine love that we share among ourselves grow stronger even as our selfishness and pride wither away. 

Jesus makes a significant promise to his disciples regarding prayer. He says, “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find. . .For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds. . .” The keys to understanding this promise are selflessness, service, humility. He's not promising us that God will be our celestial Santa Claus, or our divine Sugar Daddy. Ask in humility and you will receive in love. Seek in service to others and you will find merit in sacrifice. Before you give voice to prayer, remember who and what you are in relationship with God. Remember that what you are given reveals God's nature to you and to the world. And never forget that God Himself has no need of our thanks or praise. Giving thanks to Him for His gifts is for our benefit not His. He calls us to prayer so that we might grow in holiness, grow closer to His love, and become beacons of that love for a darkening world. Without His prompting, without the good work of His Holy Spirit, we cannot pray. So know that every urge to pray, the very need to pray is the Holy Spirit working His loving work within you. We can nothing good without Him. With Him, every door falls open.

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