19 October 2019

Be a Bullheaded Pray-er

Audio File

29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

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, so why should prayer be any different? Why wouldn't a ceaseless conversation with God wear us out? The intense focus required. Memories stoking conscious thought. Fingers counting out beads. 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 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-headedness. I mean something akin to the sort of stubbornness that we expect from a rented mule. 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 one praying. 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 own 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.

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. 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. 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.

NB: 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. 

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13 October 2019

Tenacious Christian Bulldog

Audio Link

28th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

I grew up in rural Mississippi with more or less tradition-minded Baptist parents. My younger brother and I learned from Day One to say “yessir/no sir,” “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me.” Failure to express proper respect or gratitude earned a swift and terrible rebuke. I still use “Mr.” and “Ms” when addressing adults, and I cringe a little when people call me by my first name w/o asking, or shorten it to “Phil.” It's all very old-fashioned, I know, but there's something about the habits of good manners that makes life easier. In the case of the healed leper, his deeply felt sense of gratitude actually saves him! He discovers – probably to his great surprise – that giving God thanks for his healing is not only the polite thing to do but a way to salvation as well. For us, the baptized, giving God thanks for His blessings is way to persevere, a way to remain in Christ and thus end our earthly pilgrimage reigning with him in the Kingdom. Is it possible that the good manners many of us were taught as children is what remains of this spiritual insight? Saying “thank you,” especially to God, is a path to healing and salvation.

We hear Paul say to Timothy: “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him.” That persevering part is what most of us find difficult. Dying with him in the waters of baptism was easy. Living with him has its challenges, but we manage it with the sacraments. Persevering with him however is on another level entirely. Persevering here means staying close to Christ. Hanging on to him through the best and the worst. Living with him whether we “feel” his presence or not. Perseverance is the good habit of being tenacious in faith when every fiber of your being is screaming at you: “Compromise! Just fit in! Surrender! This is too hard!” Have you seen that video of a bull dog swinging himself around a tree, teeth clamped on the end of a rope? The rope will break, or the tree will fall before that dog lets go. That's tenacity. That's perseverance. Now, I wouldn't trust my teeth to hang on like a bull dog's. But I do trust that gratitude is the key to staying close to Christ. The leper proves this. Christ teaches this. And I can bear personal witness that giving God thanks for His blessings is essential in our long trek to holiness.
As a priest in an academic ministry, I don't have my own parish to run, so I spend a lot of time going out to parishes to hear confessions, give missions or talks, and basically just visiting with people over all the archdiocese. Every time I go out, I hear a lot of anxiety about the Church. I get confused questions about the faith. Angry comments about the news coming out of Rome. Questions and doubts about the future. Just generally an overwhelming sense that things aren't well with the Body of Christ. Something is wrong, something is upsetting the peace we've come to expect from following Christ. In response, I have to sharply suppress my professorial instincts and avoid giving a lecture on the history of the Church. No one wants to hear how good we have it compared to, say, the Church in communist China. Then I have to swallow the need to remind folks that the “peace of Christ” comes with a promise of persecution. What I usually end up saying is that difficult times require a bull dog's tenacity. It might be too much to say that we're being tested. But – we're being tested. Not tested in the sense that God is deliberately trying to scare us or trip us up. But tested in the sense that steel is tested under pressure to measure its purity and strength. Our test is measuring the purity and strength of our gratitude. If you will to endure with Christ, you will be grateful to God for His blessings.

You might ask here: why does God need our gratitude? The answer is: He doesn't. Giving God thanks does nothing for God b/c He needs nothing from us. Our desire to give Him thanks is itself a gift that benefits us alone. In other words, we are doing ourselves a favor by returning thanks for all that God gives us. Failing to give thanks breeds entitlement – I am owed. And entitlement is the rich soil of pride. If we nurture pride by failing in gratitude, we end up denying Christ – the ultimate gift from God. We end up being among the nine lepers who were healed but not saved. Ungrateful wretches living lives of resentment and anger b/c they believe that God owes them a debt. As followers of Christ, our best means of staying close to Christ is to be a tenacious Christian bull dog, refusing to let go of gratitude.

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