25 July 2010

The Power of Prayer

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C

Readings: Gen 18:20-32; Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8; Col 2:12-24; Lk 11:1-13

The words of Jesus in our Gospel passage this Sunday are prompted by a disciple asking: “Lord teach us how to pray.”

During Jesus’ time, it was the custom for a Jewish rabbi or teacher to teach his followers a simple prayer they could regularly use, and which has the additional benefit of defining the group’s identity. The disciples now make a request along this line. What Jesus taught them was more than just a prayer they could call their own, but a whole new way of looking at prayer and life. Here is what He taught them – and us.

1. We need to be persistent in prayer.

He expound on this by telling them a parable (the insistent buyer) and giving them an assurance: "And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Lk 11,9).

Here’s a story Timothy Radcliffe, OP, includes in his book “Why Go to Church?”

There was a pious and God-fearing town in the Deep South of the United States, where everyone went to church and was good. And then one day a man arrived and opened a bar which became the focus for all sorts of bad behavior: drinking and dancing and, who knows, maybe even sex. All the good Christians prayed that the bar would be closed. They besieged heaven and, sure enough, six months later the bar burnt down. The bar owner demanded compensation from the Christians. They denied that they were responsible. What had they done? He replied: ‘Am I the only one in this place who believes in the power of prayer?’

Jesus insists on us being persistent in prayer not only to get what we want, but also because of this next point…

2. Prayer is about seeking God and His will for us.

This takes up the first parts of the Our Father prayer. Herbert McCabe, OP, says: “We do not pray so as to change God’s mind about us, but to change our mind about God.”

At first glance, the First Reading story seems to go against this reasoning. In it we find Abraham bargaining with God, in behalf of his nephew Lot, not to destroy the city of Sodom. The message of the story is not that Abraham was able to convince God to alter His plan. It is actually about how God gradually reveals to Abraham the quality of His justice and mercy. We all know Sodom was destroyed, but the innocent Lot and his family were saved (though not his wife, but that is a storyline for another time).

St. Thomas Aquinas calls prayer, “the interpreter of desires”. Prayer, especially persistent prayer, educates our desires. As we open ourselves to the mystery of God’s grace, we find our motivations purified, our plans attain more realism. Prayer heals our desires of fantasy and puts them in touch with our fundamental aspirations.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell (who wrote the seminal book "The Hero with a Thousand Faces") says: “The greatest tragedy in life is climbing up the ladder of success, and then finding that it is against the wrong wall.”

Persistent and earnest prayer gets us in touch with the will of God. Real prayer is not an isolated, stand-alone act. It is always situated in the context of a life, a prayer life, or more precisely, of our entering into the life of God.

3. Prayer is in the service of our relationship with God.

What God wants is to have a personal relationship with us. Jesus taught us to call God with the very personal term of endearment “Abba Father”. His mission is to restore humanity’s broken relationship with God.

What is the role of prayer in this relationship? It is the event of communication without which no relationship could be formed. Let us dig deeper by trying to answer two existential questions on prayer.

a. What if God doesn’t answer our prayers?

What if we ask and not receive, seek and not find, knock and nothing happens? St. Augustine, in a homily on 1 John, explains that God sometimes hangs back so as to teach us to desire more. “The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when He comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.” We are like bags that need to be stretched to become big enough for what God wishes to give. “Simply by making us wait He increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.”

b. What does it mean when God answers our prayers?

Timothy Radcliffe, OP, says: “When our prayers are answered then it is so that we may grow in confidence in God, the giver of all good things and ultimately of himself. It may be that prayers are answered but we never even notice.” Here’s another story from his book.

There was a man in a bar in Alaska, getting drunk. He says that he is finished with God. His plane crashed. He was buried in the snow dying, and prayed to God to save him but he did not. He feels totally let down. So the barman says: “But you are here; you were saved.” “Oh, that’s just because some Eskimo came along.”

Many times we are too preoccupied to notice how God has been answering our deepest desires and constant needs. “Every good thing is a gift, but prayer opens our eyes to their giftedness.”

Now we ask ourselves;
What are the usual contents of my prayer?
What has God blessed me with lately?
When was the last time I have really opened up to the Lord?

I am much indebted to Timothy Radcliffe, OP, and his book “Why Go to Church?”, in particular, the chapter on “Ask, and you shall receive”, for many of the thoughts and quotes in this homily. The book is a satisfyingly good read.

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