Sunday, July 26, 2020

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 12 A - July 26, 2020

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Rober Leo Sevensky, OHC

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 12 A - July 26,.2020

Today is the feast of St. Ann, mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. I grew up in a town with a large Catholic shrine to St. Ann which, during my childhood, attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims on her feast day, the culmination of the solemn novena or nine days of prayer in her honor. I was fascinated by the place and its devotional life and finally at one point late in my adolescence, I visited the shrine. At the back of the basilica there were desks where one could fill out a card listing various petitions: “St. Ann, pray for good health for X” or “St. Ann, pray for employment for so-and-so.” And there was also a category: “St. Ann, send me...” and there was a box for a Catholic boyfriend and another for a Catholic girlfriend. Given my adolescent condition, I simply couldn't resist. I checked off the appropriate box, dropped it into the slot, and was assured that it would be laid on St. Ann's altar so that, as they said in the novena prayer, she might recommend it to her daughter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who would lay it before the throne of Jesus who would bring it to “a happy issue.” And he did. Or perhaps St. Ann did. Or Mary. I'm not exactly sure how these things work. I do have to say, however, that they took their time. Nevertheless, I'm happy to say that they came through.

Was what I did then, as a 16-year old, prayer?

As I walk around here, I am always talking to myself audibly—it's true, my brothers tell me so—and I occasionally sigh and say out loud, “Oh God.” Or I echo my godmother and say in Polish: Matko Boska. Is that prayer?

Or when I sit outside and finally stop and look at the River for a few minutes or pause before the Blessed Sacrament or set up for another church service or mop the dining room floor. Prayer?

I have been around churches a long time, but I must admit that I have seldom heard a sermon about prayer. I've been encouraged to pray, of course, and occasionally there has been some brief explanation of the Lord's Prayer offered from the pulpit. But pretty much the topic was avoided. Perhaps the nuts and bolts of prayer are better left to retreat addresses or adult forums after coffee hour or inspirational tracts on sale in the narthex. But the cry of the disciples “Lord, teach us to pray” had pretty much not been a part of the homiletic tradition or even of the parochial tradition in my experience.

I don't think this should surprise any of us. Whatever prayer is, it is intimate and relational, touching on our vulnerabilities and neediness and desires and hopes. Prayer is fire, and like all fire, it must be treated with a certain respect.

Mindful of that old saw that says, “Those who can do; those who can't teach,” I feel a certain reluctance to speak at all about prayer, especially here, before you with whom I live and move and practice praying... practice being perhaps the operative word in this regard. But today's readings are critical for an understanding of at least some of the dynamics of prayer in our own lives and in the life of the world. And I am encouraged in this regard by our community faith sharing earlier this week. Nothing here will be new to any of you, of course, but I believe it needs to be heard again and again. Or at least, I need to say it again and again, over and over, if only to convince myself.

In our first reading from I Kings, we hear the story of Solomon's prayer for wisdom. The young king pleases God by asking for a wise and discerning mind to lead his people, and God grants his prayer. But we must not gloss over too quickly how this story begins. God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks him: “What should I give you?” Or to put it another way, God asks Solomon: “What do you want?” This is not a rhetorical question. It is a question inviting each of us to take a good look at ourselves and see what it is that we really want right now. Not what we think we should want, or what we think God wants us to want, but what we actually do want, or at least what we imagine we want. And that is generally not quite as pretty or noble or as “spiritual” as Solomon's desire for a discerning mind. But then I'm not Solomon, nor are you.

As so often happens in the healing narratives of Jesus, the process begins with our Lord asking his conversation partner: What do you want me to do for you? Do you want to be healed? Do you want to see again? Do you want to be made whole? Do you want me to do something for someone you love...or perhaps for some you may feel a little ambivalent about? What is it that you desire?

There is a rich literature about the role of desire in the spiritual life. In a nutshell, it comes down to accepting that we must begin where we are, with our true desires or perceived wants or needs, however quotidian or petty they might appear. We begin there. And though we may begin there, most of the time we don't end up there. The naming of our desires and longings before the face of God and in the light of God's own dreams and desires for us and for all creation leads to a merging of horizons and a melding or a transformation—I'm tempted to say, transfiguration—of our desires. It is said that prayer changes things, and perhaps the first thing it changes is us. Prayer has the power to refine our hopes, widen our interests, kindle, or rekindle love, reorient our passions and open new vistas, however narrow, where the light may break through. “What should I give you?” Prayer begins there, with the question God asks of Solomon and of us all.

Our second reading is perhaps even more important to those who aspire to live a life of prayer. It contains of course those words from the 8th chapter of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

We do not know how to pray. We really don't. Which doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't try, though the painful truth is that all our attempts, insofar as they are ours alone, will be imperfect and probably unsatisfying. But St. Paul tells us that we are in fact not alone, that the very Spirit of God is praying in and through us at the most fundamental level of our being, at that very center point of our existence that we call our soul. Right now. All the time.

What we can offer, maybe all that we can ever offer, is our intention and attention. First, we offer our intention to draw into deeper union with what English Benedictine theologian Sebastian Moore enigmatically termed the I know not what, an experience that all people have, potentially if not actually, of being touched by an attraction toward the God who desires us into being and sustains us in existence. It is our responsive desire for union with the mystery which is at the source of all, which is the All. It is, in short, the foundational religious experience.[i]  And secondly, we can offer our awakened attention to what God is already doing in and through and around us right now. Intention and attention.  Beyond that, however, the rest is God's business, not ours.

I remember as a novice meditating at length on the words of Jesus to his disciples on the night before he died as he led them into the garden of Gethsemane: “Sit here while I pray.” (Mark 14:32). This was good advice not just to those first disciples, but also to me. Just sit here and let Jesus pray in and through me. That was for me a liberating word. But it's not an easy word, as most of us know. For it's the very simple sitting, which is to say pausing, stopping, noticing, that becomes the challenge. But that too is part of prayer, isn't it? And even that, in the end, is more about God's work in us than it is our work for God.

The late Sr. Wendy Beckett, the televised art nun, once wrote: “Prayer is the last thing we should feel discouraged about...[it's] the simplest thing out.” My first reaction on reading this was: “Well, maybe for her.” But I'm beginning to believe that she was right. Many people, good Christians and countless others, feel discouraged about prayer and praying, though they need not be. Neither do we. If we offer God the tiniest bit of our longing desire or our wandering attention or our dedicated action, small though it be—tiny as a mustard seed is tiny—God will work with us and through us, bringing it all to maturity, to that happy issue mentioned in the novena prayer. It may take time, maybe a long time—as my experience of St. Ann's intercession did so many years ago. Indeed, sometimes it takes a lifetime. But as one of my Jesuit professors used to ask: Quid hoc ad aeternitatem? What is that in the light of eternity? We have an eternity. And we've only just begun. And really, God is not in a hurry. Still, imagine what might happen if we seize this one present moment, this holy pregnant Now, filled as it is with never to be repeated opportunities and untold possibilities, and with interior desires and cultural longings and societal groanings ripe for transformation. This is the time for fervent prayer. It is always the time for fervent prayer. So then, friends, let us pray. Let us pray. Let us pray.


[i] Barry, William A., S.J.  Finding God in All Things.  Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1991. Pp. 34-37.

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