Three Teachings from the Lord on Prayer

Photo by Michael Hoyt for the Catholic Standard

Last week’s Gospel featured the Lord insisting that prayer was “the one thing necessary.” This week, we see the disciples’ request that the Lord teach them on prayer. In answer, the Lord gives three basic teachings or prescriptions for prayer.

Let’s look at these three prescriptions.

I. Pattern of Prayer The Gospel opens as follows: Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.”

We must be careful to understand that in giving us the “Our Father,” the Lord Jesus is not simply providing us with words to say. More than this, He is giving us a pattern for prayer; He is “teaching us to pray.” He does this in response to the disciples, who did not ask to be given words to say, but to be taught how to pray.

Thus, while the words of the Our Father are precious, it is also important to look at the underlying structure implicit in the prayer so as to learn “how to pray.” By these words, Jesus is illustrating what ought to be going on in us interiorly, in our mind and heart, as we pray.

There are five basic disciplines taught in the Our Father, and they form a kind of pattern or structure for prayer. I use here the Mattean version of the prayer only because it is more familiar to most people, but all the basic elements are the same regardless of the version.

1. RELATE Our Father who art in heaven – Here begins true spirituality: Relate to the Father! Relate to him with familial intimacy, affection, reverence, and love. We are not merely praying to the “the deity” or “the Godhead.” We are praying to our Father, who loves us, who provides for us, and who sent his only Son to die for us and save us. When Jesus lives His life in us and His Spirit dwells in us, we begin to experience God as our Abba, our Father.

As developed in other New Testament texts, the deeper Christian word Abba underlies the prayer. Abba is the family word for the more generic and formal word “father.” When my own father was alive, I did not call him “Father”; I called him “Dad.” This is really what the word Abba is getting at. It indicates family ties, intimacy, close bonds. Why the word Abba is not used here in the Our Father is uncertain. St. Paul develops the theme here: For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15) and here: And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6)

Ask God for the gift to experience Him as Abba. At the heart of our worship and prayer is a deep and personal experience of God’s love and fatherly care for us. The first discipline or practice of the Spiritual life is to relate to God as to a father who loves us, and to experience Him as Abba.

2. REJOICE hallowed by thy name The praise and love of God is the essential discipline and element of our spiritual lives. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift and to Him our praise is due. Praise and thanksgiving make us people of hope and joy. It is for this that we were made. God created us, so that we … might live for his praise and glory (Eph 1:12).

Our prayer life should feature much joyful praise. Take a psalm of praise and pray it joyfully. Take the Gloria of the Mass and pray it with gusto! Rejoice in God, praise His name. Give glory to Him who rides above the clouds.

There may be times when, due to some sadness or difficulty, we do not feel like praising God. Praise the Lord anyway! Scripture says, I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1). Praise is to be a regular discipline of prayer, rooted even more in the will than in feelings. God is worthy our praise.

Ultimately, praise is a refreshing way to pray, because we were made to praise God, and when we do what we were made to do, we experience a kind of satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment. The second element and discipline of the spiritual life is a life of vigorous praise: Rejoice!

3. RECEIVE thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – At the heart of this petition is an openness to God’s will, to His instruction, to His plan for us and for this world. When Jesus lives in us, we hunger for God’s Word and strive to know His will and have it operative in our life.

A basic component and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is receiving the Word and instruction of God, so that His will might be manifest to us and we can obey. We ought to pray the Scriptures (lectio divina). We ought to study the faith through the Catechism or other means. These are ways that we become open to God’s will, that His Kingdom might be manifest in our lives.

The third element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is an openness to God’s teachings through the Church and Scriptures: Receive!

4. REQUEST Give us today our daily bread – Intercessory prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. Allow “bread” to be a symbol of all our needs. Our greatest need, of course, is to be fed by God, and thus bread also points to the faithful reception of the Eucharist.

Intercessory prayer is the prayer of asking for God’s help in every need. Take every opportunity to pray for others. When watching the news or reading the newspaper, pray the news. Much of the news contains people for whom we should pray: victims of crime, disaster, or war; the jobless; the homeless; and the afflicted. Many are locked in sin, bad behavior, corruption, confusion, and bad priorities. Many are away from the sacraments and no longer seek their Eucharistic bread, who is Christ. Pray, pray, pray.

There are also good things we hear of, and we should be grateful and ask that solutions be lasting. This intercessory prayer flows from our love for and solidarity with others. We see the world with the compassion of Christ and pray. The fourth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to intercede for ourselves and others.

5. REPENT and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. – Sin is understood on two levels here: (1) sin (lowercase) refers to our personal sins, also referred to as our trespasses, and (2) Sin (upper case) refers to the whole climate of sin, the structures of sin that reinforce and underlie our own sins (referred to here as “evil”).

An essential element of our spiritual life is that we come to recognize the sins and the deep drives of sins in our own life so that we can beg deliverance from them as well as mercy.

It is also true that we live in a sin-soaked world, where the powers and principalities of evil have great influence. We cannot fail to recognize this and pray that its power will be curbed.

Then, too, we must also pray for the grace to show mercy to others, for it often happens that sin escalates through resentments and the desire for retribution rooted in unforgiving attitudes. We must pray to be delivered from these so as to be able to break the cycle of violence and revenge that keeps sin multiplying.

But in the end we must pray for the Lord’s grace and mercy to end evil in our own lives and in the whole world. The fifth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to repent of evil.

So this, then, is a structure for our prayer and spiritual life, contained in the Our Father. Jesus teaches us to pray and gives us a basic structure for prayer. Some may use this as an actual structure for daily prayer; if they are going to spend twenty-five minutes praying, they spend about five minutes on each aspect. Others may use this structure as an overall reference for their spiritual life in general, trying to reflect these aspects and disciplines well in their overall prayer life.

Thus the first teaching of the Lord is to give us a pattern for prayer. We now go on to the next prescription.

II. The Persistence of Prayer Jesus goes on to say, Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,” and he says in reply from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.” I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Jesus tells a similar parable in Luke 18, of an unjust judge and a persistent widow. At the end of the parable, the judge gives her justice because of her demanding persistence.

The upshot of both of these parables is that if even a grouchy neighbor and an unjust judge will respond to persistence, how much more will God the Father (who is neither unjust nor grouchy) respond to those who call out to Him day and night?

The teaching that we persist in prayer is something of a mystery. God is not deaf. He is not forgetful. He is not stubborn. Yet He teaches in many places that we are to persevere, even pestering Him, in our prayer.

Why He teaches this cannot be for His sake; it must be for ours. Perhaps He seeks to help us clarify what we really want. Maybe He wants to strengthen our faith. Perhaps He wants to instill in us appreciation for the finally answered prayer. Whatever it may be, the exact reason is a mystery. But persistent prayer is taught and insisted upon by Jesus, here and elsewhere.

Some may wonder why our prayers are not always effective. Some of the usual explanations from Scripture are:

  1. Our faith is not strong enough. Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22). And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6-7). There is also the sad case of Nazareth, where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58).
  2. We ask for improper things or we ask with wrong motives. The Book of James says, When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:3).
  3. Unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked. Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear (Isaiah 59:1-2).
  4. We have not been generous with the requests and needs of others. If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered (Proverbs 21:13).
  5. God cannot trust us with blessings, for we are not conformed to His word or trustworthy with lesser things. If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you (John 15:7). So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12)

Now all these explanations are fine, but even if not a single one of them applies to us, God often delays anyway.

One day a man prayed to God and asked, “How long is a million years to you?” And He replied, “About a minute.”  The man then asked, “How much is a million dollars to you?” And God replied, “About a penny.” The man then asked, “May I have a penny?” And God said, “In a minute.”

God’s “delay” and our need to persist and persevere in prayer are mysterious aspects of God’s providence, but they are taught; there is no doubt about that.

Pray, Pray, Pray! The insistence on persistence is taught to us all, not just to the sinful and the weak in faith. Realize that this is part of what is required of the Christian. Prayer is about more than “calling and hauling” or “naming and claiming.” It is also about persevering, about persisting. St. Monica prayed for thirty years, it would seem, for Augustine to accept the Faith. Some of us have prayed even longer for loved ones. In the end, God seems to require persistence for some things, and we dare not give up or become discouraged. We just have to keep praying: Pray, pray, pray!

Note that the two of the three images for persistent prayer (asking, seeking, and knocking) given by Jesus involve an ongoing action. Asking can be done only once, but it can be repeated. Seeking implies an ongoing, even lengthy, search. Knocking is a repeated rapping at the door. One does not usually knock by rapping once, but with several rapid and repeated raps. And when there is no answer, the pattern is repeated a few times. The second prescription for prayer is to persist, to persevere.

III. The Point of Prayer Jesus then concludes, What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

The rhythm of the Lord’s analogy seems a bit odd here. If an earthly father knows how to “give good gifts” to his son, then we would expect Jesus to say that the Heavenly Father also knows how to give “good gifts” to those who ask. But Jesus does not say this. Rather, He says that the Father gives “the Holy Spirit.”

Why is this? Because it is the highest gift, and contains all others. To receive the Holy Spirit is to receive the love of God, the Glory of God, the life of God, and the Wisdom of God. It is to receive God Himself, who comes to live in us as in a temple. And with this gift comes every other gift and consolation, for by the Holy Spirit we begin to think and see more as God does. We attain to His priorities and desire what He desires. We see sins and worldly attachments begin to go away. And thus the world loses its hold on us and can no longer vex us.

Jesus says elsewhere, Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:33). Yes, to receive the gift of God the Holy Spirit is to receive all other things as well, for nothing more can disturb us. One day, St. Thomas Aquinas sensed that the Lord asking him what he would like. St. Thomas replied, Nil nisi te, Domine (Nothing except you, O Lord). For those who love God and have progressed in prayer, that really is all that is wanted. God can give cars, new jobs, and financial blessings—and for some, such things are needed. But why not aim for the highest and best gift as well? Ask for the Gift of the Holy Spirit: Nil nisi te Domine!

Ultimately, the point of all prayer is deep communion with the Lord. This is our high calling: to be in communion with the Lord here and one day fully in the glory of Heaven. Don’t miss the ultimate point of prayer.

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
Thy wings shall my petition bear
To Him whose truth and faithfulness
Engage the waiting soul to bless.
And since He bids me seek His face,
Believe His Word and trust His grace,
I’ll cast on Him my every care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!

When God Says No – A Meditation On the Sometimes Mysterious Providence of God

When God Says NoIn last Sunday’s Gospel, we heard the story of the widow at Nain, whose son Jesus raised from the dead. Beautiful though that story is, there are some who may wonder sadly why they did not receive a better answer to their prayers; why their loved one died. Such stories might even serve to deepen their sorrow.

All of us struggle with the great mystery of God’s providence and will. Sometimes it is our own struggle and sometimes we must commiserate with others who are in distress. One friend is losing her young daughter to cancer, another is struggling to find work, still another has a husband who is drinking. Some people will say to me, “I’ve been praying, Father, but nothing seems to happen.” I am not always sure how to respond. God doesn’t often explain why we must suffer, why he delays, or why he sometimes just says no.

Just think about how God answered Job. Job wanted answers as to why he was suffering. God spoke to him from the whirlwind, upbraiding him with provocative questions meant to humble him. But in the end, He gave him no real answer. He did, however, restore Job. In the midst of God’s mysterious ways, we do have to remember that if we are faithful God will more than restore us one day. But in the throes of trials, the promise of future restoration can seem pretty theoretical.

In the midst of trials, often the best thing we can do is to be still; to breathe, sigh, and yearn; and to weep with those who weep. Scripture says, The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD (Lam 3:25).

Scripture does give some answers as to why God sometimes delays and why He sometimes says no. And while these explanations may not always satisfy us emotionally, they do provide a teaching that can ultimately assist us in not allowing our sorrow, anger, or disappointment to interact with our pride and lead us away from faith. Let’s look at a few of these explanations. Some of them pertain to God and some to us.

I. Sometimes no is the best answer.

We often think that we know what is best for us. We want to have this job or we want that person to fall in love with us. We want to be delivered from a certain illness or to receive a financial blessing. We see these as good outcomes for us and are sure that God must also see them that way. But in fact God may not agree with our assessment. In such situations, no really is the best answer to our prayers.

For example, we might want God to answer our prayer that none of our children be born with any disabilities. But God may see that the experience of disability may be just the thing that we or the child needs in order to be saved in the end. St. Paul prayed for deliverance from physical affliction in this passage:

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me,My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:7-10).

The fact is, we really don’t know what’s best for us or for someone else. We may think we know, but we don’t. God’s no to Paul actually helped to save him. It helped him to better understand the power of the cross in his life and to realize that he must learn to depend on God. So, too, for us. We may prefer certain outcomes, but God alone knows if our preference is truly good for us.

II. God is love.

Many confuse love with kindness. Kindness is a common attribute of love, but it is not the same thing. All parents know that they must sometimes discipline their children and that it is the loving thing to do. Parents who are always “kind” and never punish their children actually spoil them; failing to discipline does not exhibit true love. Parents sometimes inflict short term pain on their children by limiting their freedom and/or insisting that they do what is right. They will bring an unwilling child to the doctor for shots; they will insist that they finish their homework before playing. Parents may give a firm no to certain requests that they know are harmful or that interfere with more important duties. Kindness always wants to say yes, but love sometimes says no—even inflicting hardship where necessary.

God is a Father. Kindness has its place but love is more essential for us than mere kindness which is but an attribute of love.

My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son … God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-6, 11).

Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus … Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this (2 Tim 2:3,7).

III. Sometimes our request cannot be affirmed without violating another’s freedom.

It is common to pray for the conversion of other people. Or we may pray that they make some decision that we would prefer. God is omnipotent and could choose to force outcomes, but this would violate the freedom to truly decide. If freedom is contingent upon God’s whim, then it is not really freedom at all. God can exhort us through His Church and the Scriptures. He can send us special graces. But in the end each of us is free. God will not typically force someone to choose something that someone else wants or asks for in prayer. The Scriptures affirm our freedom: There are set before you fire and water; to which ever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, which ever he chooses shall be given him (Sirach 15:16-17).

IV. Sometimes our request cannot be granted because of the harm it might cause to others.

We can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that we are the most important thing on God’s agenda. We may want a sunny day for our picnic but the farmers are in desperate need of rain. Whose need is more important? It would seem that the farmers need for rain might be a bit more important to God than the weather for my picnic, but even this I leave up to Him.

The prophet Jonah went reluctantly to the Ninevites (Assyrians) to preach. He didn’t want them to be converted. Jonah wanted them to refuse repentance and be destroyed in forty days. In his own mind, he had good reasons to want this: the Ninevites were amassing an army that was a great threat to Israel, so their destruction would spare Israel from further threat. But the Ninevites did repent. And Jonah was sullen and bitter over this. God rebuked him with these words:

Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city? (Jonah 4:9)

While we may not actively pray for another’s harm, it may sometimes be the case that what we ask for would adversely affect others.

V. Sometimes our faith is not strong enough.

Jesus said, If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer (Matthew 21:22).

And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6-7).

There is also the sad case of Nazareth, where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58).

VI. Sometimes we ask for improper things or ask with the wrong motives.

The Book of James says, When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

VII. Sometimes unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked.

Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear (Isaiah 59:1-2).

VIII. Sometimes we have not been generous with the requests and needs of others.

If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered (Proverbs 21:13).

IX. Sometimes God cannot trust us with blessings because we are not conformed to His word or trustworthy with lesser things.

If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you (John 15:7).

So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12)

Thus we must prove trustworthy in smaller matters to be trusted with greater blessings.

Each of the “explanations” above may or may not apply to you. In the end we have to accept the mystery of prayer and come to understand that not everything is fully explainable. We see so very little of the whole picture that God sees. Humility must be our constant disposition.

This song says that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.

What Is Meant by the “Sacrifice of Praise” in Scripture?

Corpus Christi

Please consider the following reflection more of a pastoral meditation than a formal exegesis. I do not seek here to compare every use of the phrase in the Scriptures but rather to ponder how we seem to have lost the connection of personal sacrifice to liturgy and worship. Scripture clearly connects them. Let’s look at a few examples from Scripture and then examine how we have strayed from the concept.

So Jesus … suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Heb 13:12-16).

The fundamental principle is that praise (or worship) is connected to sacrifice. Scripture notes this in many places, using expressions such as “a sacrifice of praise” and “a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

On one level, Tradition insists that there be a connection to true worship of God and to living a holy life in charity to the poor.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:26-27).

Now consider this, you who forget God, Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver you. He who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me. And to him who orders his way aright I shall show the salvation of God (Psalm 50).

Thus, the first meaning of a “sacrifice of praise” is that our worship, our praise and thanksgiving, must flow from a heart that is obedient to God, generous to the poor, and unsullied by worldly affections. There is an intrinsic connection between worship and holiness. The greatest risks of worship and praise are that we think we can use it to “buy God off,” or that mere lip service in worship is sufficient. True worship should lead to integrity, such that we become more and more like the One we praise.

There is also some value in pondering the sacrificial nature of the act of worship/praise itself. This is surely the case for Christ, who as our High priest is also the victim. In the Old Covenant the priest and victim were distinct, but in the New Covenant they are one and the same. Jesus did not offer up some poor animal; He offered Himself. And so, too, for us, who are baptized into the priesthood of Jesus Christ as members of the royal priesthood of the baptized or who are ordained to the ministerial priesthood.

Simply put, our worship and praise does cost something—and it should. It takes some effort; there is a cost to worshiping God in the way He is worthy of. Though it is not easy, it is our obligation; it is something that can and ought to challenge us.

This obligation is underappreciated today, when too often the notion is that “going to Church” should entertain me, feed me, minister to me, and be relevant to me. The focus is on man and what pleases him or is sensible to him, rather than on God. Liturgy today seems far more about man than about God. Modern worship too easily resembles a closed circle in which we congratulate, entertain, and excessively reference one another. Either God is something of an afterthought, or it is presumed that He will be pleased simply by the fact that we are there regardless of what we actually do when there.

The first goal seems to be to please and “reach” the faithful. The faithful are seldom asked to make sacrifices of any sort. For indeed, worship that elevates may also challenge. The challenge might be in listening to the content of the sermon, or ancient language, or complex concepts, or something lasting more than a sound bite. Many Church leaders simply reject what challenges or requires sacrifice on the part of the faithful. Heaven forfend one might be required to attend patiently to the worship of God, or to consider things that are of a higher order than the merely banal, or to devote a little time and study!

If Mass must last no longer than 45 minutes, if sermons ought not challenge, if attending Mass on holy days is “too hard,” then where is the sacrifice? And what about tithing or sacrificial giving? Is the way we worship God merely what pleases me or us? Is the purpose of liturgical music to please and edify me or is it to praise God in a dignified way? Is the liturgy today really about God or is it more about us?

Such a non-sacrificial, misdirected notion of worship is certainly much on display in certain “mega-churches,” whose services resemble rock concerts and motivational talks more than a sacrifice of praise. But these notions have infected the Catholic setting, too, in the ways described above.

Worship should involve work. It is not merely an experience akin to going to a movie or concert and sitting in one’s seat being passively entertained or pleased. Some demands should be made of us beyond the collection plate. Higher things are less easily understood than the merely mundane, and to comprehend them we must be drawn out of our comfort zone and challenged.

I was not born loving either Bach fugues or the intricacies of renaissance polyphony. But, like fine wine, they have attained pride of place in my life—through the power of the liturgy (patiently prayed and experienced) to elevate my mind and personality to higher things. Further, in my earlier years, the joy of gospel music was not relevant to me; today it is. The sacrifice of praise is not, therefore, merely arduous and painful to no end. Like most sacrifices, it brings forth new life.

Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu) recognized the strange development in the West of worship without sacrifice and called it one of the seven deadly sins of culture. In the West, “going to church” has increasingly come to resemble entertainment. And the attitude seems to be that if things don’t please me and cater to my tastes, I have a perfect right either to go somewhere else or to not go at all.

Where is the sacrifice of praise of which Scripture speaks?

Granted, parishes should strive for excellent liturgy and preaching. Every liturgical aspect should be done well, first and foremost because it is directed to God, who is worthy of our very best. But at the end of the day, no liturgy will be 100% pleasing to everyone. It is not the job of the liturgy to please the faithful. The purpose of the liturgy is to worship God fittingly. It is my task (and dignity) to offer a sacrifice of praise to God the Father through Jesus Christ. Priest and victim are one and the same.

I will end by posing a few questions:

  1. Do we go to the Mass with the attitude “Peel me a grape” (i.e., please me), or ready to offer God a sacrifice of praise?
  2. Is our liturgy focused on God or merely on us?
  3. Do the liturgy and the clergy place proper demands on God’s faithful? Are the faithful willing to accept those demands?
  4. If you are a priest, whom do you hope to please on Sunday? Is it God or just your parishioners?
  5. Is God central in our liturgy today? How is He or is He not?
  6. Are we willing to accept that the primary purpose of the liturgy is not to please us or even to speak in ways relevant to us?
  7. What do you think it means for you to offer God a sacrifice of praise?

Psalm 116 offers a good description of the attitude we should bring to worship and the Liturgy:

LORD, surely I am Your servant, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid, You have loosed my bonds. To You I shall offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And call upon the name of the LORD. I shall pay my vows to the LORD, in the presence of all His people … (Psalm 116:16-18).


How to Understand Dry and Difficult Prayer

Most who seek the Lord in prayer experience times of dryness and difficulty, times in which it seems to us that the Lord hides His face. We pray; we call out; we seek Him; but He doesn’t seem to answer; it almost seems as if He hides from us.

A well-known atheist was once asked what he would say to God if he were to discover upon his death that God exists. He replied simply, “I would ask, ‘Why did you hide?’” Many of us who do believe might respond, “He doesn’t hide! All creation shouts His presence, shouts, ‘I was designed!’” But most believers can sympathize to some extent and say that while we have once experienced God’s presence profoundly, there are also times in which we yearn for but cannot find Him, times in which He seems to hide from us.

So, then, it remains a legitimate concern, even among believers, that at times God mysteriously hides His face. Indeed the Psalms, inspired by God Himself, state clearly, Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not reject us forever. Why do You hide Your face and forget our affliction and our oppression? For our soul has sunk down into the dust; Our body cleaves to the earth (Ps 44:23-25).

Yes, the conundrum of God hiding His face, and the despair we experience because of it, are constant themes in the spiritual life.  Many saints, including St. Teresa of Avila and Blessed (soon-to-be-Saint) Teresa of Calcutta, have discussed long periods (even years) of dryness in prayer. It is typical of their spiritual experience.

What are we to make of this? How can we understand it?  Permit me to propose my own feeble answers. I am not a saint, just a fellow sinner still walking this earth. But I do walk with over twenty people in spiritual direction for them, and I myself have a spiritual director. I, too, ponder this deep problem. I refer you first to St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Therese of Lisieux.

I have only this advantage: I live along with you in the 21st century. Having read the saints, I can tell you that the difficulties, dryness, and distance in prayer are not new; they are common. They occur no less in our time than in theirs. Let me therefore, in humility, present you with my own thoughts on the matter of dry prayer. They are certainly drawn from the lives of the saints, but at the end of the day they are merely my own ideas.

I present the difficulties of prayer in the five subheadings below. I do not argue that the answer are complete, only that they are the result of pondering experiences from my life and from the lives of many spiritual “directees” (more than 40 over the years) who have frequented my rectory over the past 25 years.

At the outset, I want to prescind from the question of mortal sin. It goes without saying that those who are in unrepentant mortal sin are going to have difficulty beholding the face of God (if able to do so at all), due to a severely darkened intellect and a hardened heart. Scripture itself says, Behold, the LORD’S hand is not so short That it cannot save; Nor is His ear so dull That it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear (Is 59:1-2).

Therefore, the first step in deeper prayer is to strive to be free of mortal sin, particularly that of an unrepentant nature. There are some who struggle with frequent occurrences of what is it least objectively mortal sin, but in their humility they cry out to God and confess frequently. This is far less dangerous than those who are dismissive of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church, who pridefully call good what God calls sin. They claim to hear God, but it is really a demon they hear, one who deceives them by masquerading as an angel of light.

In this post, I do not propose to address those who are in obstinate mortal sin. Rather, the explanations here for dryness in prayer are addressed to those who are either largely free of mortal sin, or at least a repentant of it and frequent in confessing it.

With these disclaimers in mind, let’s consider five possible understandings of dryness and difficulty in prayer.

I. Normal – There is nothing unusual about experiencing dryness, difficulty, and distraction in prayer. Here, the word “normal” is used to mean that it is a common Christian experience. Every saint who has ever written about prayer has discussed it. Even the great mystics—who often experienced deep, unitive prayer—experienced, even in the midst of such profound encounters, that God seemed distant or even wholly absent.

Why this happens will be discussed more in some of the points to follow. But, to be sure, it is caught up in the mystery of God’s providence for us.

For the purpose of this first point, simply note that if you are experiencing dryness, distance, or difficulty in prayer, you are in good company. The greatest saints, far more holy than you and I, experienced the same thing. It is part of God’s mysterious providence for us. Acceptance, which is not the same as approval (in the sense of liking something), is essential for us.

God has his reasons for permitting this, even if those reasons are not immediately obvious to us. This is especially true for those of us who live in the commercial world, where the customer is always right and marketing seeks to be attractive, creative, and appealing at the most immediate and fleshly level of instant gratification. We expect next-day delivery or even immediate download of all that we desire. But God prefers crockpots to microwaves. Some of His gifts require lengthy preparation and a sturdy foundation. Further, many of his greatest blessings require paradoxical struggles. To continue the cooking imagery: you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

Here, simply note that difficulty, dryness, and distance in prayer are quite normal among those who seek God.

II. Needed – One of the great questions in our life is whether we seek the consolation of God or the God of consolation. Dryness, difficulty, and distance in prayer are ways of testing us. For indeed, if it is merely the consolations of God that inspire us to pray, one way to disclose this is to remove those very consolations. If prayer were all joy, and deep, satisfying union, it might be that the root of our prayer was merely wanting to experience those joys and pleasures on our terms. As St. Augustine points out in his Confessions, too easily do the beautiful gifts of God become ends in themselves rather than something that draws us to God, who made them (Conf. Lib. 7, 10, 18; 10, 27).

Our hearts are very complex; quite quickly we become content with the gifts rather than the giver. Thus, difficulty in prayer is needed in order to help us purify our desires, rooting them in desire for God Himself rather than merely in the consolations and gifts He can give us.

One of the most constant and unvarying mandates given by saints and spiritual directors down through the ages has been that we must persevere in prayer, consolations or not! Difficulty, dryness, and distance are need to help us to purify our desires.

III. Nature – Part of the explanation of our difficulty in prayer is merely our own human (fallen) nature. We tend to be enthralled by something when it is new, but quickly bored once it becomes “old” to us. Tragically, this is at the root of many marital struggles. A man marries a beautiful bride, but once he has uncovered the mystery of her, he grows bored. Unless his love for her is rooted more deeply than merely her body, he grows complacent and bored.

This happens in other relationships as well, including our relationship with God. Finding Him newly, we thrill in the glory of His truth revealed, but our zeal fades when the message repeats and the “spicy new foods” become the more basic “meat and potatoes” of doctrine and daily prayer.

Frankly, our natures are fallen. Though we thrill at what is new, we yawn at what is repeated and time-tested.” Marketers shout, “New and improved!” They do not crow, “Old and time-tested!” They know our fallen nature.

Given our nature, we need to ask the Lord to help us overcome this difficulty in prayer. The honest truth is that what wins the day is the basic meat and potatoes of prayer, scripture, sacraments, and holy fellowship (cf Acts 2:42). Spicy foods are tasty, but they often produce heartburn and indigestion. Bland foods may be less immediately desirable, but they ultimately nourish us and provide what we need. We must ask the Lord to help us overcome our fallen nature. We must ask the Lord to deliver us from a kind of “attention deficit disorder.” We cannot bear lengthy conversations; we want only brief sound bites. Our fallen condition seeks mere entertainment rather than true enlightenment. We want relief more than healing.

IV. Not alone – Personal prayer is not the only aspect of our spiritual lives. Other aspects are communal prayer, the reception of the sacraments, the reading of Scripture, and holy fellowship. (cf acts 2:42).  When at times you find that your private prayer has become dry, you should look more widely to other aspects of your spiritual life.

It has been my own experience that when personal prayer grows dry, other aspects of my spiritual life light up. For example, I may find the breviary and the reading of Scriptures to be particularly inspirational. Or perhaps, I may find liturgy to be lively and moving. Perhaps I will find my capacity to find Christ in others, in what they say and offer to me, to be particularly powerful.

God speaks to us in many ways, not merely in our private or personal prayer. Look for God in creation, in the people whom you encounter, and in the events of your day. Listen for Him in the Scriptures and in the holy liturgy. Even when your personal prayer is in a state of difficulty, perhaps you will find that the sound of a particular song or the glory of the Mass will move you.

Look to the Lord and all the ways that He reveals Himself. Sometimes He is quiet during our personal prayer so that we will seek Him in other places: the liturgy or the celebration of the sacraments. Too easily, we insist on a personal relationship with the Lord in prayer. He is there, but He also insists we find Him communally in in the wider Church that is His Body.

V. Numbness is a feeling – Most people describe numbness (i.e., dryness) as a lack of feeling. But numbness actually is a feeling itself.

Consider the times you may have experienced a limb fall asleep. On one level, there seems to be no feeling in it or ability to move it. But on another, deeper level, there is a feeling, even a sort of pain that accompanies a limb that is going numb.

The numbness of our spiritual feelings may cause us to feel spiritually dead. But if we go a bit deeper, numbness speaks a kind of a pain of longing. All the great saints spoke of this as the dark side of contemplative prayer. So beautiful is the prayer of union, that its absence produces a kind of pain, a longing that hurts, but in a way, it “hurts so good.” It reminds us of the beauty of the prayer of union, just as thirst reminds us of the glory and beauty of water.

Absence often makes the heart grow fonder.

Yes, numbness is a feeling. And God permits it in order that our longings might grow ever deeper. Who appreciates a glass of water more, a man who is been in the desert for days or a man who has just had four beers? The answer is obvious. Aridity produces an intensity of longing that will not be satisfied until water is supplied. Too easily, abundance can draw us to contempt for spiritual gifts.  Therefore, God permits aridity in order to intensify our longing and to give us greater satisfaction in the water, when it is supplied.

These, then, are my own poor reflections on the difficulty, dryness, and distance that sometimes come with prayer. I speak from experience as both a spiritual director and a spiritual “directee.” Consult the saints first. If they tell you something different, then they are right and I am wrong. But if my words can help in any way, here they are.

This song speaks to spiritual difficulties and asking for God’s help:

On Humility in Prayer

blog10-27Perhaps like you, I have to see people I love and care about through some difficult periods in their lives. One neighbor and parishioner recently lost her eight-year-old daughter to cancer. A number of my parishioners are seeking work and praying daily for it, but no employment offers have been forthcoming. Still others cry out for relief from any number of different crosses. I, too, have lots of things for which I pray; sometimes I get discouraged or even angry when God seems to say, “No” or, “Wait.”

There is one thing that I have learned about true prayer: I have to be humble, very humble. The Scriptures say, We do not know how to pray as we ought (Romans 8:26). Many other translations of this text say even more emphatically, We do not know what we ought to pray for. Yet we are often so sure that we know what is best for us or best for others. But what we find is that the outcome we want is not necessarily the best one for us. This insight requires great humility. We see so little and understand even less. Though it is not wrong to ask for some particular outcome, we need to do so humbly. God alone knows the best answer and when to give it. Recognizing this requires humility.

There is an old teaching that basically says this: Many think of prayer as trying to get God to do your will, but true prayer is trying to understand what God’s will is and then doing it. I heard an African-American preacher put it this way: “You’ve got a lot of people that talk about naming and claiming and calling and hauling, but there’s just something about saying, ‘THY will be done!’ that we’ve forgotten.”

It’s not wrong to ask. The Book of James says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2). But we do need to ask with great humility because we don’t really know what’s best. James and John came to Jesus one day seeking high positions in the new administration (Kingdom). Jesus said to them, You do not know what you are asking (Mk 10:38). And the truth is, we don’t.

So ask, but ask humbly.

St. Augustine writes beautifully on this matter in his letter to Proba:

Paul himself was not exempt from such ignorance … To prevent him from becoming puffed-up over the greatness of the revelations that had been given to him, he was given … a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him, he asked the Lord three times to take it away from him … even such a great saint’s prayer had to be refused: “My grace is enough for you, my power is at its best in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

So when we are suffering afflictions that might be doing us either good or harm, [we ought to remember that] we do not to know how to pray as we ought. [B]ecause they are hard to endure and painful, because they are contrary to our nature (which is weak) we, like all mankind, pray to have our afflictions taken from us. [But], we owe this much respect to the Lord our God, that if he does not take our afflictions away, we should not consider ourselves ignored and neglected. But [rather, we] should hope to gain some greater good through the patient acceptance of suffering. “For my power is at its best in weakness.”

These words are written so that we should not be proud of ourselves … when we ask for something it would be better for us not to get; and also that we should not become utterly dejected if we are not given what we ask for, despairing of God’s mercy towards us. [I]t might be that what we have been asking for could have brought us some still greater affliction, or it could completely ruin us through the corrupting influence of prosperity. In such cases, it is clear that we cannot know how to pray as we ought.

Hence if anything happens contrary to our prayer [request], we ought to bear the disappointment patiently, give thanks to God, and be sure that it was better for God’s will to be done than our own.

The Mediator himself has given us an example of this. When he had prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by,” he transformed the human will that was in him because he had assumed human nature and added, “Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.” Thus, truly, by the obedience of one man many have been made righteous (St Augustine Letter to Proba (Ep 130 14.25ff)).

A Tribute to the Holy Women of the Mystical Tradition

© José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC-BY-SA-3.0

This past week, I have been traveling in Europe: Fatima, Lourdes, Avila, and soon enough up to Notre Dame in Paris. What a privilege it is to be in these places so near to the feasts of our Lady of Fatima (10/13) and St. Teresa of Avila (10/15)! Yes, two very important women in my life: Mother Mary and St. Teresa.

Indeed, I have come to realize my need for and indebtedness to the holy women of God’s Church, to those who are living and those who have gone before and set forth a glorious testimony of the feminine genius and mystique of deep, mystical prayer.

Ah, the Holy Women! To be sure, there are also men: St. John of the Cross and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose towns I am also visiting. They, too, have set forth the great mystical vision. But I must say, I am particularly indebted to the great women, to the mystics and Doctors of the Church such as St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Rose of Lima, St. Therese of Lisieux, Sister Faustina, and others who ventured into deep, contemplative, and spousal union with the Lord.

How their deep love, their intensity, and their union with God has inspired me in my own journey toward contemplative prayer! Though I cannot access their spousal love for the Lord, I am able to transpose their experiences to a deep spiritual experience of sonship with God the Father, for He is Abba and I am a son of His.

Ah, the great Catherine of Sienna: her love for the Lord and her wisdom, rooted in both suffering and affliction, joy and ecstasy! She personally met the Lord. What a witness! What a glory! What a testimony the mystics gave us! St. Teresa of Avila: she who encountered the Lord and yet suffered greatly. She was even suspected of heresy and her visions and experiences submitted to the Inquisition.

Alas, Lord, spare us for our suspicious rejection of the normal Christian life! St. Rose of Lima, St. Margaret Mary, and Sister Faustina were considered by many of their contemporaries to be strange, excessive—even possessed! Yet, they knew Him whom they had encountered. They knew His love for them and were willing to suffer with Him and for Him.

Spare us, O Lord, for our obtuseness, our doubt, and our lack of faith in assigning to them, who experienced a normal Christian life, the label of insanity, oddness, extremeness, mental unbalance, and even possession!

They encountered you. They had met you and experienced you. Yet so many of us thought them strange and unbalanced. Forgive us, Lord. Too often have we substituted extreme rationalism for the mystical vision of you, who go beyond mere words and human descriptions.

Forgive us, Lord, for while our intellect is our crowning glory, sometimes we forget that you cannot be reduced to the limits of human concepts.

The mystics remind us of God’s transcendence and we often made them suffer for this.

Yes, Lord, while it is surely our obligation to submit all things to your holy Magisterium, forgive us, Lord, for the times when we have been too slow or skeptical to accept the bold testimony that the mystics gave us: that you are Other and that you draw us beyond what is comfortably understood by us.

Thank you, Lord, for the mystical tradition, for the holy women and men, beginning with John the Apostle, who have testified to us of you, who may have encountered you in ways more deep than words. They suffered much, often at our hands, for their visions, but they knew and would not deny you, whom they encountered.

The intellectual tradition of the Church is magnificent and necessary, but so is the mystical tradition, a tradition not opposed to, or really even distinct from, the intellectual tradition. For the same God is experienced and speaks in both ways. And while all things must be submitted to the sacred Magisterium of the Church, the intellectual and the mystical traditions should both be appreciated and respected.

In particular I must say that as a man, so relentlessly male, I must, despite my gifts as a man, be balanced and completed by the holy women of the Church. Indeed they have been my teachers, especially in the ways of prayer.

Thanks be to God. Some of the most beautiful women I know hang out at the basilica here in Washington D.C. Here is a video I have compiled in gratitude to some very important women in my life:

St. Monica and the Prayers of Mothers

CEP III July 1961On this Feast of St. Monica, who prayed at length for her son, I’d like to say that my mother prayed for me, too! And I really needed (and still need) her prayers.

Satan hates priests and seeks above all to get to us. Jesus remarked laconically and pointedly, quoting from Zechariah (13:7), Strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered. This is why Satan hates priests and seeks to topple them. Corruptio optime pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst.)

I have always felt my mother’s prayers very powerfully. I pray that my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, who died in 2005, and is now at home with the Lord. She always told me that she was praying for me! I often attributed her prayers to her tendency to worry. But I have learned of the power of her prayers and of their necessity. She told me that the Lord had told her that Satan wanted me and all priests and that she had better pray for me. I never doubted that she did and I’m sure she still does.

I remember once, a week before my ordination in 1989, I was up on the roof of our family house cleaning out the gutters. My mother came out and told me to “Come down from the roof at once!” and that she would hire someone to clean them. She later explained that her concern was that I, so near to my ordination, was now a special target of the Evil One and that I might have fallen from that roof by his evil machinations.

Yes, she always told me she was praying for me. I have come to see both her wisdom and my need for her prayers. I have also come to value the prayers of so many of my parishioners, who have told me that they were praying for me. Yes, I need a hedge of protection—and so do all other priests. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!

And though my mother has long since gone home to the Lord, I still feel her prayers.Somehow she knew that I needed them in a way that I, in my pride, did not. But I have come to know.

Thanks be to God; I have been a faithful and fruitful priest for 26 years. But I know that it was not I who accomplished this. It was the Lord and so many people, like my mother, who have prayed for me.

Back in my 33rd year of life and my 5th year of priesthood, I was severely attacked by the Evil One. He made his move and sought to discourage and destroy me; he did not succeed. My mother and others were praying for me. My parishioners, too, saw my distress and rallied to pray for me and hold me up. And now, almost 20 years later, I feel strong, alive, joyful, and grateful. Sometimes I’m weary in the work, but never weary of the work.

But I am no fool; I know that Satan will try again. I pray only for the prayers of God’s holy people and for my own sober awareness of the need to pray and to fulfill the mandate of the Lord who said, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt 26:41).

So today on this Feast of Monica, my thoughts stretch to my mother. Thanks, Mom, for your prayers and for your wisdom. You knew that precious gifts, like the priesthood, also come with crushing burdens and temptations that require sober and vigilant prayer. One day you called me down from the “roof” of my pride and told me to keep my feet on solid ground. Yes, you knew and you prayed. You warned me and then prayed some more.

And thank you, dear readers and beloved parishioners, for your prayers. They have sustained me. Better men than I are suffering and better men than I have fallen under the burden of office. It is only your prayers that have kept me. Yes, pray, pray, pray for priests! Join your prayers to those of my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, others in the great beyond, and many others still here on this earth. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!

The photo at the top? Yeah, that’s yours truly, in a needy moment; my mom is holding me up in prayer and care. She still does this from her current location, closer to the Lord. Her prayers still hold me, as mine hold her. Requiescat in Pace.

A Simple but Powerful Definition of Prayer

08052015I have read many definitions of prayer, and I am especially fond of St Therese’s description.

But one of the nicest and briefest descriptions of prayer that I have read comes from Dr. Ralph Martin in his book The Fulfillment of All Desire. Dr. Martin says beautifully, in a way that is succinct and yet comprehensive and inclusive of diverse expression,

Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God (p. 121).

Such a wonderful image: paying attention to God. Imagine that, actually paying attention to God! So simple, yet so often overlooked.

More traditionally, I have heard prayer defined as “conversation with God.” True enough, and well attested. But to me, this definition seems to shed less light on its meaning. While most people easily grasp the “talking” part of conversation, fewer are able to appreciate the “listening” part. And thus there can be a lot of emphasis on recited prayers, intercessory prayers, etc. These are all good in themselves—even required—but when and how does one listen?

One could theoretically recite long prayers, but in the end pay little attention to God. This is not usually due to malicious or prideful motives, but rather to the fact that our minds are weak. And thus the “conversation” definition has its pitfalls and limits.

How different it is to go to prayer saying, “I am going to go aside now and spend some time paying attention to God. I am going to sit still and listen while he speaks. I am going to think about His glory, rejoice in His truth, and ponder His presence as deeply as I can.”

Paying attention to God can take many forms. One outstanding way is through the slow, thoughtful, and deliberate reading of Scripture called lectio divina. We are not merely reading a text; we are listening to God speak; we are paying attention to what He says. And as we listen, as we pay attention to Him, our minds begin to change, and the Mind of Christ becomes our gift.

Another preeminent way of paying attention to God is through Eucharistic Adoration: a thoughtful, attentive, and loving look to the Lord as our thoughts gently move to Him, and His loving look returns often wordless but powerful presence.

Further, in authentic and approved spiritual reading we pay attention to God in a way that is mediated through His Saints, mystics, and other reputable sources. Good, wholesome, and approved spiritual reading presents to us the Kingdom of God, His Wisdom, and His vision. And in carefully considering holy teaching, we are paying attention to God.

And of course the highest form of paying attention to God is attending to Him in the Sacred Liturgy, experiencing His presence and power, listening to His Word proclaimed thoughtfully and reflectively, attending to His presence on the sacred altar, and receiving Him with attentiveness and devotion.

Throughout the day there are countless ways that we can take a moment and pay attention to God: momentary aspirations, a quick thought sent heavenward, or a look of love.

I will say no more here. For so much is beautifully and simply conveyed in these words: Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God.