Pray always and never lose heart! Pray always! My first year in the seminary was called a spiritual year. After completing the year, we were all excited about summer holidays and getting home for the first time. Our director told us to make the best of our vacation and meeting our families and friends, but then he added, ‘there is no holiday from the spiritual life!’ Methinks he was putting into practice what Jesus said about praying always.
There is a clear example of this in the first reading. While the militant character of this reading is troubling and cannot be condoned, nonetheless the point here is persistence in prayer. Moses and his people are in real danger from the attacking Amalekites. Moses felt utterly helpless and as a last resort climbs the mountain to prayer. His arms raised in prayer has become the classic gesture of intercession. This was later immortalized with Jesus’ arms stretched out on the cross. (Next time you look at a crucifix just remember that Jesus is praying for you with those outstretched arms). The key point however is that Moses has to continue praying. When he got weary and his arms began to droop, Israel fared badly. So with the help of friends, he manages to persevere in his mediating prayer, until victory is assured. Is there not something here also about we supporting each other in our prayers?
‘Never lose heart!’ is the second point. These days Thuli Madonsela is getting well deserved praise, but the widow in today’s gospel is also a brave and valiant woman. In the biblical tradition the widow is the symbol par excellence of a person alone and forsaken. This woman has no husband or children to defend her. She counts on no help or advice. She only has adversaries who abuse her, and a judge without religion or conscience for whom no one’s suffering matters. Challenging and all as her plight is she doesn’t ask for a favour; rather she is insisting on her rights under the law. Probably her adversary was rich and had paid off the unjust judge that deprived of her due rights. Facing this unjust judge was like facing a stonewall. There is no point in appealing to his better side because he doesn’t have one. He does not fear God so there is no point in appealing to the law or the covenant, or divine compassion. He does not respect people so it’s a waste of time counting on human decency either. And yet, this immovable judge relents in the end, not out of any high motive, but simply because he became weary of this relentless woman.
Jesus leaves us to make our own conclusion. If persistent asking makes this obnoxious judge to change his mind, how much more will God, who is infinitely compassionate and loving, be moved to answer our prayers. Do not lose heart!
Why pray? I’m sure it’s a question that has often crossed our minds. To begin with prayer is an acknowledgement that, like Moses and the widow, we are powerless and depend on God. There are dark forces in the world at large that we have no control over. But there are deeper reasons. Prayer is to the spiritual life what the air we breathe is to our physical well-being. We can’t do without it and thus Jesus admonishes us to pray always. Prayer is also relationship and here is the great miracle. The God who created the heavens, has stooped down to befriend us and wants enter into a personal relationship with each one of us whereby God calls each of us, you and me, by name. This is a truth too deep for us to appreciate, but in prayer we slowly learn to engage in this amazing reality.
What do we pray for? It is quite natural for us to immediately think of our own needs and wants and wish that our prayers be answered. But God is not into satisfying our egoistic desires. The first step is to move the focus out from our selfishness – only then will we have that purity of mind and heart that will allow us to glimpse the meaning of what the Christ is saying to us. The first question is not ‘Why does God not answer my prayers?’ but rather ‘what is the will of God for me and for the world at large?’ Will we keep nourishing our private devotions, forgetting those who are suffering? Will we continue praying to God in order to put God at the disposal of our interests, without caring all that much about the injustices that abound in our world? Can we see that praying precisely exists to help us forget ourselves and seek with God a more just world for everyone?
The Catechism says that prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God. That word ‘raising’ suggests prayer takes us to a new level. We are lifted out of the ordinary and the routine so as to engage with the mysterious presence of God. And there we come to share in the mind and heart of Jesus whose heart is beating for the poor and oppressed and declares that justice will be done for the poor and done quickly.
Prayer is friendship with God. The deepest part of any friendship is the gift of self to the other. It is this gift of self that St. Augustine is speaking about in his letter to Proba. “God’s gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers. The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed. No eye has seen it; it has no sound. It has not entered the human heart; the human heart must enter it … Pray without ceasing means: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of God who alone is able to give it.
Sunday, 16 October 2016