The 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Ex 17:8-13 + 2 Tim 3:14—4:2 + Lk 18:1-8
October 16, 2016
“…be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient….”
When we were children, many of us were taught the Catholic Faith through the use of catechisms. Most catechisms—including the classic Baltimore Catechism—have a Question & Answer format. This format has the great advantage of simplicity, presenting the beliefs of the Faith in bite-sized pieces. Of course—to use a different metaphor—once we have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle on the table, we have the job of putting them together, in order to form the larger picture.
However, when Saint John Paul II decided that the Church needed a new catechism, in order to incorporate the many good insights of the Second Vatican Council, he decided not to use the Question & Answer format. Instead, the Catechism of the Second Vatican Council uses what might be called short essays. These essays are grouped under four headings, or to use a different image, four pillars. These four pillars present the Church’s beliefs, sacraments, morality, and prayer, focusing on the Creed, the seven sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father.
But here’s the point in bringing up today this Catechism. If you were to survey a sizable group of priests, and ask which of these four pillars they preach about the least, you’d likely find that most of them preach least about the fourth pillar, on prayer. For every ten sermons that priests give on the Creed, the sacraments, and the Commandments, we might give one about prayer.
Why is this? Perhaps it’s because our beliefs about prayer are more difficult to pin down in words. The Creed for, example, is clear in stating our dogmatic beliefs, such as that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”, or that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life… who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified”. When it comes to prayer, the words of the Our Father is more mysterious, more difficult to “pin down”, if you will. This is connected to a second reason why it’s more difficult to speak to others about prayer: namely, that prayer—by its nature—is personal. While our beliefs about Christian prayer can give us guidelines about what to seek and what to avoid in prayer, it remains the case that no two faithful Christians have the same experiences in prayer.
So then, having said all that, what can we say about the experience of Christian prayer. What does today’s Gospel passage point out to us? As with any passage of Scripture that speaks about prayer, we need to hold up today’s Gospel passage to the Our Father, and let the latter shed light on the former.
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The Church’s teachings about personal prayer are rooted in the Our Father, which of course is the only spoken prayer that Jesus ever taught His disciples. But this single prayer is a treasury of infinite riches, leading us into the prayer life of Jesus with His Father. The particular teachings about prayer given through the centuries by popes, bishops and saints cannot possibly exhaust the riches of what God wants each of us to experience. But they can point us towards these riches. In particular, there are a handful of saints whose sermons and writings form the core of the Church’s teachings about prayer, delving deeply and at length into the mysteries about prayer that Jesus gave us, through both the Our Father and His many parables on prayer (including today’s Gospel passage). Any disciple of Jesus Christ who wants to grow in her or his experience of prayer needs to become acquainted with these saints and their sermons and writings.
Regardless, one way to reflect on the nature of Christian prayer is to recognize that it has three distinct forms. The first form is what’s commonly called “vocal prayer”. The second is called “meditation”, and the third is called “contemplation”. Some Christians, unfortunately, go through much of their lives only focusing on the first. This “vocal prayer” consists of the prayers that we vocalize to God in human words, in the same language that we speak to our family and neighbors. Vocal prayer includes the prayers we memorized as children, such as the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. Vocal prayer also includes the prayers that we voice spontaneously to God from the heart in human words. All these prayers are certainly indispensable. But there is more to prayer.
The second form of prayer, called “meditation”, is like vocal prayer in that it’s largely the activity of the human person praying. Meditation consists of praying about God through human ideas: for example, reflecting on a Gospel passage and imagining that you’re one of the characters in the passage. So in both meditation and vocal prayer, the person praying is the one doing the work of prayer, hoping to receive a response from the Lord.
If we were to compare prayer to a conversation between two human persons, we could say that vocal prayer and meditation are more like using the mouth rather than using the ears. To have an authentic conversation with someone, we have to use both the mouth as well as the ears. In prayer, vocal prayer and meditation consist of us using the “mouth of the soul” in order to speak to God.
The third form of prayer, called “contemplation”, is the “better part”, to use the phrase of Jesus that He spoke in the home of Martha and Mary. Contemplation is the gift of God’s presence: dwelling in the sight of God, as a brief foretaste on earth of what those in Heaven experience for all eternity.
This third and loftiest form of prayer is not something that we humans can manipulate. There are no methods or techniques for “producing” contemplation. Contemplation is a gift. God gives this gift only to someone who has pre-disposed her or his heart and mind to God’s presence. Part of that “pre-disposing” ourselves is offering vocal prayers and meditation rightly. That’s why Jesus teaches us in the Gospel how rightly to offer vocal prayer and to meditate: in order to lead us into that divine Presence that we can experience on earth in contemplation, and forever with the saints in the divine Sight of God.
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In the first verse of today’s Gospel passage, St. Luke the Evangelist is unusually direct in explaining the meaning of Jesus’ parable. “Jesus told His disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” Jesus is teaching us how to offer vocal prayers of petition to God: how rightly to beg God for what we need, or maybe more accurately, what we believe we need.
As Jesus tells this parable, He doesn’t explain exactly what the widow’s complaint is. We learn that she’s seeking justice, but we don’t learn what this justice concerns. Presumably the widow is right in her petitions to the judge, because Jesus calls him a “dishonest judge”, who only gives the widow her due out of fear of coming to harm. We can just imagine the widow hitting the judge over the head with her handbag. She must have had a reputation for being tenacious.
Of course, Jesus is not comparing the “dishonest judge” and God. He’s contrasting them, so as to say, “If a dishonest judge will do the just thing for a wrong reason, won’t God do the just thing for the right reason?” We know the answer to this rhetorical question is “Yes”, but like with most of Jesus’ parables, there’s a loose end that Jesus leaves untied, perhaps to intrigue us into pondering the parable more and more.
The loose end asks its own question. We can understand why the widow needed to persist in changing the mind of an unjust judge, but why should you and I need to persist in petitioning the Lord Almighty? God knows all things, so why do we need to petition God even once, much less to persist in voicing our petitions?
This is where one of the most insightful saints of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila, whose feast the Church celebrated yesterday, can help us. As St. Teresa reflects on the Our Father, and the fact that most of the Our Father is in fact made up of petitions to God, she says the following:
“My Lord, could you not have included all [the petitions of the Our Father] in one… by saying, ‘Father, give us whatever is good for us’? After all, to one who understands everything so perfectly, what need is there to say more?
“O Eternal Wisdom, between you and your Father that was enough; that was how you prayed in the garden [of Gethsemani]. You expressed your desire and fear, but surrendered yourself to His will. But as for us, my Lord, you know that we are less submissive to the will of your Father, and need to mention each thing separately, in order to stop and think whether it would be good for us, and otherwise not ask for it. You see, the gift our Lord intends for us may be by far the best, but if it is not what we wanted, we are quite capable of flinging it back in His face. That is the kind of people we are; easy money is the only wealth we understand. ….
“Of the many joys that are found in the kingdom of heaven, the greatest seems to me to be the sense of tranquility and well-being that we shall experience when we are free from all concern for earthly things. Glad because others are glad and for ever at peace, we shall have the deep satisfaction of seeing that by all creatures the Lord is honored and praised, and His name blessed. No one ever offends Him, for there, everyone loves Him. Loving Him is the soul’s one concern. Indeed it cannot help but love Him, for it knows Him. Here below, our love must necessarily fall short of that perfection and constancy, but even so how different it would be, how much more like that of Heaven, if we really knew our Lord!”