Three Aspects of Anxiety and How to Overcome Them

blog11-12Worry is a universal human problem. Jesus speaks to it in Matthew 6 and His advice amounts to more than just “Don’t worry.” He actually sets forth how we can avoid it. Let’s see how by looking at three problems He describes that bring about worry.

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life … But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:24-27, 34).

I. The Problem of Possessions – The text says, No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon is variously understood as riches, greed, or possession. In an extended sense, it can refer to the agenda of the world, which is focused on material things and ties our dignity only to those things.

Whose slave are you? The Lord is clear that if we wish to serve Him we cannot also serve mammon. The Greek word translated here as “serve” is δουλεύειν (douleuein), which more specifically means “to serve as a slave.” By overlooking the slavery aspect, we miss the strength of the text. In our culture it is typical that one serves in a job or some similar capacity during “working hours,” but goes home afterward and is free of obligations. Perhaps because of this, we tend to think that we can serve both God and mammon. But the Greek text here refers not to a mere servant but to a slave. And a slave is wholly subject to the will of another. Thus Greek is more intense than the English translation.

What the Lord is saying is, “You’re either going to be a slave of the Lord or a slave of the world.”  The truth is that most people are slaves of the world, of mammon, of riches, of greed, and of their associated agendas. These worldly things tend to consume us so completely that when we hear of a demand from God, we feel overwhelmed or even angry that something more is being required of us. Our anger at God is a sign that we are a slave to mammon.

Most of us are too proud to admit that we are slaves of the world, but the fact is that to a large extent we are. The world and its demands press in on us and take up nearly all our oxygen. It is this terrible slavery that is a huge source of our anxiety and from which the Lord offers to free us. The Lord describes the anxieties that flow from slavery to mammon, to the world, to its riches and agenda:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear … Why are you anxious about clothes? Do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’

Still anxious! For us who live in the Western world, the anxieties about merely having such things may have receded a bit. We are well-supplied and may not worry whether we will have clothes, food, etc. But even having them in abundance, still we worry about them obsessively. For example, we worry about whether we have the right clothes, or whether they are in style, or whether they look good on us. Many people are quite obsessed about what they eat: they worry about eating too much salt, or sugar, or fat. We have never lived so long or been so healthy, and yet we have never been more anxious about our health. It’s amazing when you think of it: we have plenty of food and still we worry about it; worry, worry, worry! Anxiety about these things is a sign that we are slaves to them. Scripture says, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep (Eccles 5:12).

The Lord offers to live his life in us so that we will not be slaves to mammon, but to Him. You may not like the image of slavery, but I have news for you: we are so small and powerless that we’re going to be the slaves of someone, so it might as well be the Lord. Being wholly devoted to the Lord and what pleases Him breaks our obsession with the world, money, possessions, popularity, fashion, and the like.

As the Lord’s life and His will begin to replace our own, our obsession with the world’s demands diminishes and its power is broken. As we grow into a deeper relationship with the Lord, our concerns with worldly agendas fade and our anxiety diminishes.

Now you and I aren’t going to be able to completely stop worrying of our own accord. But the Lord, living His life in us, isn’t worried at all. And as His power and influence over us grows, our worries lessen and our anxiety dissipates.

This is the gift that the Lord is offering us if we but let him take greater possession of our heart. How do we do this? Through the medicine of prayer, sacraments, and daily doses of Scripture and spiritual reading. Gradually, the Lord will transform our heart, mind, and will to be like His.

II. The Problem of Paternity – The Lord Jesus wants to draw us into deeper relationship with His Father. It remains a common spiritual problem, even for those who develop something of a relationship with Jesus, to feel that the Eternal Father is distant or remote. To many, the Father is a stranger. They have surely heard of Him and read of Him in the Scriptures, but still He is stranger. Some even have a sort of fear of Him. Perhaps their fear stems from some Old Testament texts, or from their relationship with a stern earthly father. Whatever the problem, the Lord Jesus wants to lead to us His Father. Note that the phrase “your heavenly Father” occurs twice in this passage and four times in Matthew Chapter 6 overall. There are two other references to the Father as “God” in today’s gospel. It is also in Chapter 6 of Matthew that Jesus teaches us the Our Father.

All of these references to the Father, particularly in such close proximity to the invitation not to worry, cannot be overlooked. An antidote to anxiety is having a closer relationship with the Heavenly Father. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need.  He cares for birds, flowers, and countless other things and is willing and able to care for us. To embrace and experience His love for us is to experience a lessening in anxiety.

Perhaps an illustration will help. When I was six years old, I was sometimes afraid that someone would break into our home or that something bad would happen during the night. But when my Father was home, I didn’t have these fears. In 1968 he left for Vietnam and was gone for a year. During that time I had an extended bout of ongoing fear at night; Daddy was gone and I felt unsafe. In 1969 he returned and my fears went away. I didn’t cause them to go away. It was not an act of the will on my part. It was simply this: Daddy was home.

You and I may not simply be able to dismiss our fears and anxieties by a simple act of the will. But to the extent that our “Daddy-God” is near and we feel His presence, our fears just go away.

Here is a critical gift that Jesus wants to give us: a deep, personal experience of, and love for, His Father. It is our perceived distance from the Father that causes our anxiety. But when we experience that our Heavenly Father “knows what we need,” we experience our fears melting away.

Seek this gift from Jesus: that his Father will be known and loved by you, that His presence will be close at hand; then watch your fears melt away. The Lord Jesus can do this for us.  Take some time and read the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) slowly. Recognize that the parable is really more about the father than the sons. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like.

III. The Problem of Priorities – The text says, But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. One of our greatest struggles is to have proper priorities, to do, in the end, just one thing. This third matter (priorities) is not unlike the first (possessions) but it is more about choices and directions than things and allegiances.

We have a lot of trouble deciding what is most important and how to make good decisions. This causes us a lot of grief and anxiety. We want too many things. We want to please too many people. We are too easily distracted from our goal. In many ways we have not even fully clarified our goal.

What is it that you want? What is the one thing that really guides every other thing you do? Now be honest! You may say, “God.” You may say, “the world,” or “my career.”  But a lot of people don’t really have a clear answer as to what the one thing they want is. The fact is they want a lot of things, and have never really sat down and reflectively determined the one, over-arching goal of their life. And so they run about chasing butterflies and experiencing lots of anxiety.

Imagine a man who is headed for New York City from Philadelphia. Along the way he sees many signs but is able to determine quickly which ones pertain to his journey and which can be ignored. When he sees a sign for “95 South to Baltimore,” he knows he can ignore it and experiences no anxiety about it at all.

But now consider a second man, who is not sure where he is headed. It may be to New York City, but he may go somewhere else; he just isn’t all that certain. He hasn’t thought about much and just sort of lets things happen. When he sees that same sign for “95 South to Baltimore,” he wonders whether or not he should follow it. The sign makes him anxious. It’s a fork in the road and he’s not sure what to do. Should he take it or not? And when he does make a choice, he wonders if he did the right thing. Having made the choice only heightens his anxiety. He keeps looking back, second-guessing himself, and wondering about his choice. He’s anxious because he didn’t first determine his real destination.

Many people today live this way. They have no real priority, no definitive choice. And even if they have some vague direction (e.g., “I want to be happy”) they have little idea what it really takes to get there. And, frankly, they don’t really want to know the specifics. Commitments and decisions are eschewed. But, strangely, in trying to avoid a decision or commitment, they become more anxious, not less. Every fork in the road of life is bewildering to them and brings about the question, “What should I do?”

The Lord wants to save us from all this anxiety and thus offers us the grace to clarify what we want and where we are going. As He begins to live his life more fully in us, our mind gets clearer and our heart desires with greater clarity. When Jesus’ own life begins to replace our own, we want what He wants. And He wants the Kingdom and its values. He loves His Father, and everyone and everything His Father loves.

And so do we. By grace and by degrees, the Lord begins to change us, to clarify things for us. Increasingly, our life becomes about only one thing: That I want to die and leave this world loving God and his kingdom … That I want to be with him forever.

Received, not achieved – In all three of these areas please remember that the Lord is not saying to us that by our own power we must serve only God, experience Him as Father (Abba), and seek first the Kingdom of God. If it depended only on us, it wouldn’t last twenty minutes!

No, what the Lord is doing here is painting a picture of the transformed human person, and of what we will increasingly experience if we let Him live His life in us and transform us by stages. This work begins and continues in us when we get down on our knees and beg the Lord to do it. It begins and continues when we are serious about having a steady diet of prayer, Scripture, Church teaching, sacraments, Holy Mass, and holy fellowship.

Now if you want to just stay anxious and fretful, fine. But if you seek serenity, then ask the Lord into your life; re-invite him every day. Remain faithful to spiritual practices. If you do, I promise (for I am a witness) that you will see your anxieties lessen, your fears abate, your serenity grow, and your confidence strengthen. The choice is yours.

After such solid advice from the Lord, I hope you’ll pardon this lighthearted video. Consider it a tongue-in-cheek bit of advice.

Hyperstimulation Is an Increasing Evil Whose Influence We Must Combat

blog11-11We live in an age of such overstimulation that it would be unimaginable to people even a mere hundred years ago. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say we are not simply overstimulated, we are hyperstimulated. The number and kind of diversions available to us and imposed upon us are almost too numerous to mention. Silence and quietude are as unknown to us as is real darkness. We are enveloped in such sea of light that we are no longer able to behold the stars at night.

And the artificial lights of our time do not simply illumine, they move and flicker as well. Television and computer screens flicker at an incredibly high rate. It is a rule of thumb with television producers that the angle of the picture should change at least every eight seconds, and preferably more frequently. Many, if not most, of our movies present action at a dizzying pace. Chase scenes, violent outbursts, and explosions are regular fare. 24-hour news channels, not content to have simply the picture of the story being presented, also have stock tickers and headlines running across the bottom of the screen. Children love to play video games that feature graphics moving at a frantic pace, and often involving violent and jerky motions. Thus, even our recreation is often mentally draining, involving hyperstimulation of both the eyes and the ears.

Background noise permeates even our “quiet” moments. Sometimes here in the big city, in the wake of a heavy snowstorm, an eerie silence descends; the usual din of traffic is peculiarly absent. On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on this country, I went outside and noticed a very strange silence. The constant sound of airplanes above was gone; all air-traffic had been grounded. I never realized just how much noise they produce until then.

Many people have never really known true silence. Some complain that they are incapable of sleeping without something playing in the background such as the radio, the television, or some other noise-producing device. Throughout our day, cell phones ring and blink away; emails, text messages, tweets, and all sorts of other fun, interruptive stimuli bombard us.

Our overall pace is frantic. With modern communication and transportation, unreasonable expectations of our availability quickly crush in on us. We are often expected to participate in conference calls in the morning and then by afternoon be forty miles away at some other meeting or activity. With modern communication cutting across time zones, it is not uncommon for people to be up in the middle of the night attending to business matters on the other side of the world.

In these and many other ways, our lives are harried, distracted, and not just overstimulated, but hyperstimulated. It is a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

All of this leads to many unhealthy and unholy behavioral issues. I’d like to distinguish three main areas: distractions, doldrums, and debasement.

I. Distractions – One of the clearest signs that we are hyperstimulated is our short attention spans. After a steady diet of video games and other fast-paced diversions, many, if not most, children find it very difficult to sit in a classroom and endure a more normal human pace. They fidget, their minds wander, and they seek in many ways to create the stimulation that seems normal to them.

Having been trained by television and the Internet to simply change the channel or click on something else when their interest diminishes, kids just tune out when they feel bored by what the teacher is saying—something that happens very quickly for many of them.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), not just among children but also adults, is the new normal. Sadly, many children are medicated for what is often merely a short attention span caused by hyperstimulation. But since the idea of unplugging and drawing back from excessive stimulation seems unrealistic or even unreasonable, many children are simply put on medication. While there may in fact be authentic cases of ADHD, it doesn’t take too much analysis to see that many, if not most, cases are more environmental than organic in cause.

II. Doldrums – Another result of hyperstimulation is boredom. When one is hyperstimulated, ordinary human activities and a normal human pace seem dull and uninteresting. Simple things like engaging in conversation, taking a walk, going to an art gallery, listening to a talk, enjoying a good meal, or reading a book become almost unendurable.

This leads to a great poverty of soul, since many of the finer things of life must be savored rather than devoured. They require dedication and patience and cannot simply be reduced to quick sound bites.

To overcome boredom, many engage in quick and crass diversions which, even if not evil in themselves, are often shallow, unenriching, and do not feed our higher nature. Such activities also tend to reinforce the hyperstimulation that fuels them.

Boredom, or even the fear of boredom, has deprived many people of the things that were once considered the best things in life: family, fellowship, art, literature, and deeper personal relationships, not to mention prayer and communion with God. To the hyperstimulated only one word comes to mind when these things are mentioned: BORING!

III. Debasement – Another major and modern issue is that our entertainment and pursuits of pleasure become increasingly extreme and often debased. Hyperstimulation begets a kind of addiction to extremes. Ordinary dramas and adventure movies from fifty years ago seem awfully slow-paced to people today. With new cinematic techniques and special effects, the demand for shocking realism becomes ever more extreme. Violence becomes more raw, and themes must be ever stranger in order to keep our attention.

The pornography explosion of the last seventy years is another sad illustration of this. Those who are caught up in the tragic descent into Internet pornography often need to look at strange and even horribly debased images of human sexuality in order to get the stimulation they seek. Never satisfied, they look voraciously for images that are ever more lewd and unnatural. Their hyperstimulated lust increasingly knows no limits.

On a wider cultural level, other strange behaviors become daily fair. Activities once considered crude and shameful are now paraded about and celebrated by those who crave ever-baser levels of stimulation. Any normal person from a mere fifty years ago would scarcely believe how ugly, crude, lewd, and debased our culture has become.

G.K. Chesterton well described the modern trend in his book The Everlasting Man:

The effect of this staleness (boredom) is the same everywhere; it is seen in all the drug taking and drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense … They try to stab their nerves to life … They are walking in their sleep and trying to wake themselves up with nightmares (The Everlasting Man, p. 291).

Yes, welcome to the increasingly horrifying world of the extreme, unusual, immodest, and just plain strange. Welcome to so-called “body art” (tattooing), body piercing, tongue-splitting, and any number of other self-destructive body alterations, along with crude and destructive behaviors. The carnival sideshow seems to have gone mainstream.

So much of it just comes back to being hyperstimulated and thereby wanting to flee to the strange and unusual as a way to stay entertained and, frankly, awake. What is merely interesting is no longer enough; it must be shocking, edgy, extreme, and usually just plain awful in order to attract attention.

It may be difficult to do, but it’s good to try to slow down a bit to the pace of normal human life, the way God intended it. We can start by turning off the television and the radio more often. Perhaps we can spend a little less time on the Internet (except for this blog, of course). Maybe we can rediscover some old pleasures like walking, talking, and dining (an image for the kingdom of God from the road to Emmaus). Perhaps we might actually consider sitting down with people and having a real conversation, maybe gathering the family together for meals. Perhaps it involves learning to say no a little more. Maybe it involves recognizing that there are diminishing returns that come from overscheduling our children in extracurricular activities, and that it is good to let them just be home sometimes to rest and spend time with the family.

Whatever it is, you and the Lord decide. But hyperstimulation is an increasing evil of which we should be aware. We do well to discover it, name it, learn its moves, and then combat its increasing power in our lives.

What are Beauty and Peace? The Ancient Philosophers Had Simple, Objective Definitions

blog11-10Every now and then we all run across a description or definition of something that captures its truth, yet at the same time respects its mystery. For indeed mere words can ever really be, or take the place of, the thing or person they describe. The reality is always richer than the descriptions we attempt with the grunts and scrawls we call “words.”

Such were my thoughts when I was rummaging through some old philosophy notes and came across two classic definitions that are moving in their simplicity, yet mysteriously accurate. Here they are:

  1. Beauty is the splendor of order. Yes, order is magnificent. Sometimes we speak of symmetry (Greek for “same measure”). Sometimes we speak of proportion (from a Latin word meaning that something is properly divided or shared). Musically, we speak of harmony (from the Greek harmonia, meaning agreement of sound) or of “concerts” (from the Latin concertare, meaning “to bring into agreement”). Yes, order is a beautiful thing that points beyond itself to purpose and design. Things in creation are not just here on earth haphazardly. They are not chaotically strewn about. Rather, things are intricately interrelated in multiple ways and at every level: atomically, molecularly, organically, ecologically, and cosmically. Such order, such beauty! Beauty is truly the splendor of order.
  2. Peace is the rest of order. This definition is even more mysterious. We all know that order brings peace, but why? When our lives are in order we sleep well. When chaos wounds order we are in distress and seek to restore order. The perception of order bestows a kind of satisfaction and fulfillment. For a moment we can stop and say, “It is well; things are as they should be.” This sense of well-being ushers in peace and serenity. Yes, peace is the rest of order.

These are just two brief thoughts to savor.

To those who understand the “order” of a Bach fugue, there is nothing more splendid. In this video the organist announces the theme with her right hand. Her left hand eventually echoes the theme, then her feet. And all the while the theme is also divided mathematically. Yes, math set to music. Enjoy the splendor of order (beauty) in this fugue.

Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass – God’s Plan to Save Us, as Seen in the Book of Malachi

Pumpkins, nuts, indian corn and applesIn the posts of the past two days, we’ve looked at the sins of the priests and those of all the people. Clearly, we all have a lot on which to reflect.

The prophets do not write merely to denounce, but rather to draw people back to the Lord, who alone can save them. Malachi is no exception.

God wants His people to be ready for the Day of Judgment. That day is coming upon us all. Either we are going to Him for individual judgment or He is coming to us and the world in general judgment. But either way, the day is surely coming. How will God make ready His people?

The vision is laid out in the central section of Malachi, in the early part of the 3rd chapter. There are four basic elements of the plan there, and then a final plea in chapter 4. Let’s look at each in turn.

I. The Preparation – The text says, Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me (Mal 3:1).

Like any good father, God prepared by first teaching His children. Historically, He gave us the Law (Natural Law) in the book of creation, and more specifically in the Decalogue on Mt. Sinai and its explication in the Pentateuch. Therefore, Moses and those who recorded his teaching were like great messengers, setting before the people the holiness of God.

But time and time again they fell short, not living the teachings given by God. So He sent more messengers, the Prophets, who summoned the people to repentance. Scripture says, The Lord gave the word, great was the company of the Preachers! (Ps 68:11)

Yes, messengers, many messengers, were sent to prepare the people for the day of His coming.

God sent His own Son, who in our own times, through His Church, speaks to us, teaches us, and sends countless prophets to prepare us. These prophets are the Apostles and their successors, bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, parents, saints, godparents, and many others (bloggers, too?).

And the message remains the same: repent and believe the Good News! Come to a new mind, come to new and different priorities, and accept the life-changing message that Jesus offers you! Enter into a life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. Let Him, who alone can heal, prepare you through Word, Sacrament, and witness.

Yes, everywhere the cry of true prophets can and does go forth. In the words of an old spiritual, “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last!” It is God, through His messengers, teaching and exhorting us in order to prepare us. The listing of the sins of the priests and the people is a clarion call to prepare us for the day of encountering God that is surely coming.

II. The Purpose – The text says, For the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2-3)

God is preparing us so that we can endure and withstand the day that is surely coming upon us all, the day when we will “suddenly” encounter the Lord.

Many modern people have little notion that this day is something to be very sober about. God is very holy; He is like a blazing fire of charity. Fire either transforms or burns up whatever it touches, but nothing goes away from fire unchanged and no one goes away from God unchanged.

Unrepentant sinners in the presence of an all-holy God will not be able to endure or withstand God. They are like wax before a fire. They are like those in a dark room who are suddenly brought out into the noonday sunlight. There are stabbing pains in their eyes and loud protests from their mouths at the light. The noonday sun is beautiful and good, but not to those accustomed to the darkness; the day of His coming will be torturous for them.

Even repentant sinners will likely undergo some painful purification. As St. Paul says,

Their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15).

Thus, God’s purpose is to prepare us for the day of His coming, a day to be very sober about. He has a purpose to prepare us because there is a lot to be prepared for! God isn’t going to change (and we would be foolish to want Him to change). Se we have to change—a lot. More accurately, we have to be changed by God, because in no way are we capable of readying ourselves.

Will you be able to stand when He appears? Will you be able to endure? God’s purpose is to get you ready to withstand and endure, for judgment day comes suddenly.

III. The Prescription – The text says, For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years (Mal 3:3-4).

So there it is, a kind of fiery purification, a wash of lye or bleach. It’s not all that pleasant, but it’s necessary.

-Paul says, Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

-Jesus says of Paul, I will show him how much he must suffer for my name (Acts 9:16).

-Job says, But God knows the way I take; When He has tried me, I shall come forth as pure gold (Job 23:10).

-St Peter says, You have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:7).

Such purifications are necessary for us. God adds consolations to encourage us, but this world more often remains a valley of tears; an exile; a crucible in which we are tested, purified, and made ready for something far greater.

Indeed, we must look beyond the cross to the glory that follows, lest we be discouraged. St. Paul says,

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).

This is the prescription: that we take up our cross daily and follow the Lord. He is purifying us through our share in His cross. And if you think that there should be a better way, remember that God offered us paradise but we wanted a better deal. Well, welcome to the better deal. We chose one tree over all of paradise. But God mercifully took that tree and turned it into a cross, reopening to us not just paradise, but Heaven! And our share in the cross is but a sliver of what Jesus endured.

So the prescription is our share Jesus’ cross and the purification it effects!

IV. The Produce – The text says, Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another; the Lord heeded and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and thought on his name. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the Day when I act, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him (Mal 3:16-18).

So, the Lord’s work brings about a purification that in turn elicits a holy reverence or fear. Praise God! And not only do the righteous alone receive this gift, they also “spoke with one another.” In other words, they become evangelical, drawing other souls to God and making sure their names are written in the Book of Life.

Purifying them, the Lord can say of them, “They shall be mine … I will spare them as my own dear children on the Day I act. They shall be distinguished from the wicked and by my grace be righteous. They shall be among those who have served me and not among those who have spurned my purifications …”

This is the produce that the Lord seeks: sons and daughters to live with Him forever, purified of their sins and lacking nothing! They shall be His own and share in Godly perfection.

V. The Plea – At the end of the Book of Malachi, the Lord lays out two alternatives for us:

Choice 1: For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch (Mal 4:1).

Choice 2:  But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts (Mal 4:2).

Which one do you want? (Hint: Pick the second choice; it’s a lot better!)

Meanwhile, God waits and quietly acts:

Still pleading: Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel (Mal 4:4).

Still preparing: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers (Mal 4:5-6a).

Still plaintively warning: Lest I come and smite the land with doom (Mal 4:6b).

The Sins of God’s People As Stated in the Prophet Malachi

Blog11-2In yesterday’s post, we considered the sins of the priests (and they were numerous enough). Today we examine the sins of the people that the Lord sets forth in the Book of Malachi. Here, too, please understand that not everyone is guilty of all of these things. However, they are common human sins and sinful attitudes. So consider this inspired list (for it is from the Lord) and pray for conversion and repentance, for the picture here is all too familiar.

I.  The Attitude of Ingratitude – The text says,

The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How hast thou loved us?”… I have laid waste the hill country [of the sons of Esau] and left its heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, till they are called the wicked country, the people with whom the Lord is angry for ever.” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord, beyond the border of Israel!” (Malachi 1:1-5)

God gives us astonishing gifts: life, air, water, food, and family—the list could go on and on. Mysteriously, even the burdens of life are gifts for us in the way they bring us wisdom, grant us humility, connect us more deeply to one another, and bring forth strengths that we never knew we had. Every day, trillions of things “go right.”

This is not an exaggeration when we consider the intricate functioning of every cell in our body, the delicate balance of the earth’s ecosystems, and even the balances and fortunes of our solar system and the cosmos. Trillions of things, large and small, go into every moment of our existence.

Each day a few things go wrong: a health setback, a missed opportunity, bad traffic, etc. But a few things compared to trillions? And yet we are so easily resentful at the slightest wrinkle in our plans, the smallest trial or difficulty.

We are like the ancient Israelites boldly rebuffing God, “How have you loved us?” God replies by simply declaring that he has rebuffed our enemies. Are you and I grateful that God has snatched us from Satan’s grasp? Through grace and mercy, we now stand a chance. Yes, we have a desert (a desert of our own making) to get through, and there are trials to be endured, but in Christ Jesus we have overcome and can make it.

II. Foolish Faithlessness – the text says,

10 Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? 11 Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12 May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob, for the man who does this, any to witness or answer, or to bring an offering to the Lord of hosts! (Malachi 2:10-12)

The remarkable insight of this text is that rejecting our covenant with God is not only being unfaithful to God, but also to one another. In the ancient context of this text, every individual who was faithless to the Covenant and its demands affected not only himself, but also everyone around him.

In 721 B.C., Israel had already been weakened and destroyed by the Assyrians. And now faithless Judah was threatened with ruin, stubborn and still unrepentant despite the warning of the destruction of the northern kingdom.

A nation cannot stand when its individuals fail to repent. Nations do not repent unless individuals do so.

In our own time, the United States is living on the fumes of former faith and sacrifices. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are demonstrably the fair flowers of the biblical teachings of justice and the dignity of the human person. The Judeo-Christian faith produced what we call “the West.” But Democracy has this weakness: it depends to a great degree on the virtue of the populace. Remove a solid moral grounding and freedom quickly devolves into licentiousness. Remove the anchor to the truth of Judeo-Christian moral precepts and the result is the tyranny of relativism.

And this is where we are today. Our country and culture were once deeply rooted in the biblical vision; belief in God was once evident on Sunday mornings, when most people went to Church. But we are now increasingly secular. Indeed, there is even a growing hostility to faith.

A country cannot undermine its principles and expect them to stand. The text from Malachi says that we have been faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers. Indeed we have—and our whole country and culture have suffered as a result.

The text also says we have married the daughters of a foreign god. Indeed, we have married many daughters of the gods of this world, of the prince of this world. These daughters go by names like greed, fornication, sexual confusion, secularism, relativism, materialism, and narcissism, just to name a few. We have collected many such foreign wives and given our hearts to them. We have been faithless and committed every kind of abomination with them.

And in all this we sin against not only God, but ourselves and one another.

III. Mangled Marriages – The text says

13 And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. 14 You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. 16 “For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless” (Malachi, 2:13-16).

Yes, God hates divorce. Do we grasp this? Too many do not, even boldly saying that God told them He wants them to be happy, or claiming God’s “blessing” on their desire to divorce.

Necessary separations for safety’s sake are one thing, but in our culture people walk away from marriages at an astonishing rate. Even in the Church many shrug and even want to settle down with “the reality” of divorce instead of insisting, along with God, that divorce is something to be resisted, to be shocked by, and to do everything possible to avoid. Too many also do not take into consideration how their individual decision to walk away from marriage harms others, especially children.

Divorce, along with all the other “mangling” of marriage that we do and approve in our culture (e.g., cohabitation, single motherhood, and adoption by homosexual couples) harm children. Every child has the need and the natural right to be conceived in a home in which his father and mother have married, committed to each other, and stay married—working out their difficulties and preserving their union for the sake of the children. To intentionally subject children to anything less than this is an injustice and is harmful to them. And when children are harmed, the whole culture is harmed. Wounded children grow older and too easily become delinquent adolescents, underachievers, and then dysfunctional adults.

IV. Delight in Disorder – the text says,

17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “Every one who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi, 2:17)

Too often in our times we glamorize evil or excuse grave sin as “no big deal.” Our movies and many other forms of entertainment glamorize violence, greed, and fornication. There is “gangsta rap” all the way up to the “high-class” House of Cards. Bad and foolish behavior, scurrilous comedians, and the like round out the debasement.

We glamorize evil, laugh at it, and dance to it.

The text here says that the people wearied the Lord by claiming that even those who do evil in the sight of the Lord are good and that God delights in them. Too many people today think that God does not care that they sin and that “He loves me no matter what.” Of course this is a terrible presumption and a highly distorted view of love. Love never delights in what is wrong and wants for the beloved only what is good, true, and beautiful. And God has made us free.

Thus St. Paul rightly says, Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Gal 6:7-8). The Greek word translated here as “mock” more literally means “to turn up one’s nose, to sneer.” St. Paul is telling us that God will not be disregarded in this manner. He tells us that our decisions build our character and our character ushers in our destiny. Either we will love God and His Kingdom’s values, or not. And that will determine where we prefer to spend eternity.

Turning up our nose at God and saying it doesn’t matter, when He has said that it does, will not change the facts; our decisions form who we are and will be for all eternity. Those who contemptuously ask, “Where is this God of Justice?” are going to be surprised. Sr. Faustina reported that Hell was quite full of people who had denied that there was a Hell.

V. Injurious Injustice – the text says,

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me,” says the Lord of hosts. “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed …” (Malachi 3:5-6).

The list here is too large to permit commentary on each item, but fundamentally it describes injustice to the poor and vulnerable. Payment of unjust wages, oppression, and insensitivity to the poor, the migrant, and the immigrant, children, and the unborn—those who do such things do not fear the Lord, according to the text. They have forgotten that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and is close to those who are oppressed.

The connection of sorcery and adultery to sins of injustice may not be clear. However, the sorcerers used potions and spells. The Greek Septuagint uses the word φαρμακοὺς (pharmakous) in this text. This is where we get the word “pharmacy.” Sorcery was often connected with abortifacients and contraceptive potions and drugs. As such children, in the womb were threatened and killed by such things.

Adultery always harms marriage and family, and as such, harms children. Thus the notion of injustice to the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy is a rather complete picture. All these sins of injustice are sadly common in our day—and God says that He will judge us for them.

VI – Tightfisted in Tithes – The text says,

From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How are we robbing thee?’ In your tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me; the whole nation of you. 10 Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. 11 I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. 12 Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts (Malachi 3:7-12).

I have written more extensively on the topic of tithing, recommending it wholeheartedly. It is true that the Church today does not strictly require that one-tenth be devoted to the Church. However, Jesus did commend tithing (cf Luke 11:42) and Catholics ought not to be so quick to set it aside as a practice.

The fundamental point in this text is that the worship and praise of God were being neglected. And this is often the case today as well. Many give little to the Church in terms of time, talent, or treasure. Meanwhile, secular causes and pursuits are well-supported. As our houses, banks, and government buildings have gotten bigger, our churches have gotten smaller. In fact, many are closing. Newer churches often fail to inspire and are utilitarian in nature.

Our immigrant ancestors had far less material wealth than we do today, yet they built beautiful Churches, Catholic schools, and hospitals. Their priorities were different—they were better.

Many people expect more and more from the Church while giving less and less. It doesn’t work that way. God says, Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.

Again, this is less about money than it is about our hearts, our priorities, and our faith. If those are intact, the resources will flow.

VII. Weary in Well-doing – the text says,

13 “Your words have been stout against me,” says the Lord. “Yet you say, ‘How have we spoken against thee?’ 14 You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? 15 Henceforth we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape’” (Malachi 3:13-15).

This is similar to what was said above insofar as glamorizing evil. But here the focus is more on the selfish notion that “I don’t get rewarded enough for doing good.”

But of course we do not obey God just because we will benefit; we obey God because God is God.

That said, there are rewards for following God. However, the rewards may not be in line with the preferences of our earthly passions. We often think of rewards in terms of money, advancement, good health, popularity, and so forth. But sometimes the best blessing is the cross and whatever it takes to kill our pride and prepare us for eternal glory.

We think that we know what is good or best for us, but usually we don’t. We only want things to spend on our passions (cf James 4:3). God does reward those who serve Him, but He rewards us with what will open us up for the best that is yet to come. Too often we are dismissive of spiritual blessings and prefer the toys, trinkets, and tender meats of the world and fleshly desires.

Well, that’s quite a little catalogue of sins! But be of good cheer, God does have a plan. We can conclude our tour through Malachi by looking at some of those remedies tomorrow.

Here is a performance of Carrissimi’s “Peccavimus Domine” (We have sinned, O Lord).

Sins of the Priests

Blog11-2The Book of the Prophet Malachi is set forth as a kind “riv” (a Hebrew word for a lawsuit, indictment, or controversy) by God. The Lord sets forth a legal case of sorts, which convicts ancient Israel of numerous deficiencies and calls for their repentance. The case that God presents shows a body of evidence that is just as true today as it was then. God has plenty to say and we have much to hear, much to repent of.

I am going to examine the Book of the Prophet Malachi in two successive posts. Today’s post is about the sins of the priests. Tomorrow’s post will focus on the sins of the people.

As we look to the sins of the priests enumerated here, please understand that neither the biblical text nor my commentary should be construed to mean that all or even most priests are like this. But, sadly, the sins and shortcomings of the clergy are far too common. As priests must strive to be better and more holy, so also must the laity remember to pray for us.

With that in mind, let’s consider the sins of the priests (as listed by Malachi) in three basic areas.

I. Shoddy Sacraments

“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? So says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, ‘How have we despised thy name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, ‘How have we polluted it?’ By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. 10 Oh, that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. 11 For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. 12 But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it may be despised (Malachi 1:6-12).

Those are strong words indeed. And while the injunction regarding blemished and polluted animals has changed, the intrinsic problem too often remains: the shoddy celebration of the Liturgy and the sacraments.

One of the most common complaints from the faithful regards priests who violate liturgical norms and/or allow others to do so. Few things offend charity and unity as much as the open and often egregious violation of liturgical norms. And while it is true that some violations are smaller matters in themselves, why not just celebrate the Liturgy as it is set forth in the books? There are of course options, and not every complaint of the faithful is accurate or fair, but God’s people have endured several decades of exotic and often egocentric liturgical experiments, which are not approved and which take the focus off God and the proper worship due Him.

Not every priest can clear up every problem in the Liturgy the day he walks through the door, but proper liturgical formation of God’s people with due regard to charity and patience is an essential task for the pastor of souls. And the priest should begin with himself. The liturgy, both in terms of its mechanics and its deeper spiritual significance, should be his study and his great love.

Another problem that can emerge is inattentiveness to the dignity and beauty of the Mass and the sacraments. Beauty and decorum are important ways that we communicate our love for God and one other. Priests should be properly vested, prayerfully prepare their sermons, and avoid mannerisms that are inappropriate or overly casual. Opulence is not necessary, but priests should ensure that liturgical appointments are clean, in good repair, and of proper dignity.

Decades ago, poor immigrant communities were responsible for building of some of the most beautiful churches. They also supplied some of the finest liturgical implements and art. It is important that we keep what they have bequeathed to us in good repair. Further, priests can and should teach today’s faithful to follow the example of these recent ancestors of ours by seeking to build and maintain worthy Churches, erected for the glory of God not just the utility of man. In the recent past, many of the faithful have been shocked and hurt by senseless “wreckovations” of sanctuaries and altars. Thanks be to God that many today are growing in appreciation for the older churches and are seeking to preserve them.

If God was offended by the offering of a lame or sick animal, why should we think He is pleased with “just any old stuff” in the Sacred Liturgy? God does not need our gold chalices or our tall churches, but He knows how we are made. And the shoddy, perfunctory, “anything goes” celebration of the Sacred Liturgy says something about our hearts, our priorities, and what we value.

Priests above all must avoid all conscious violation of liturgical norms, make central the devoted study of liturgy, and inspire respect among the faithful for the Sacred Liturgy. St. Paul summarizes well his liturgical teaching of 1 Cor 11-14 by saying, But all things should be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40).

II. Burdens not blessings? Behold your Barrenness!

13 ‘What a weariness this is,’ you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts…. 2“And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name (Malachi 1:13, 2:1-5).

The priests of that ancient Jewish time had families, and God warned that if the fathers did not obey, the children would surely suffer many curses. And while priests today do not have children of their own, thousands call us “Father”!

And here in our times is the warning of God that the sins and omissions of the priests surely have brought trouble upon the faithful. We have been through a period in which too many priests have been rebellious, unfaithful to Church teaching, slothful, unprepared to preach, un-prayerful, irreverent, and even guilty of grave sins and violations of their state in life. Far too many priests and religious have also left the sacred call they agreed to live for life.

All of this has resulted in many troubles for the faithful. Some have been left discouraged and angry, most are poorly catechized and ill-informed on critical moral issues. Many are confused by priests and bishops who have openly dissented and, as the text says, who do not listen to God or lay to heart His teaching and stand in awe of God’s name.

As such, the flock is often cursed by this poor priestly leadership and example. Eighty percent of Catholics no longer attend Mass. Many of those who do attend are barely in communion with the Church’s teaching, and struggle to live the glorious vision set forth in the Gospel.

Sadly, this text from Malachi echoes a similar text from Zechariah, Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zech 13:7). This is why the sins of the priests are so serious and why the faithful must pray especially for them. For indeed not only are priests subject to targeted attack by Satan, they are also especially susceptible to grandiosity, pride, and the sin of craving human respect.

Pray that priests do not become weary of exhortation, or speak of their office as a “burden.” Pray, too, that they do not succumb to modern and soft notions that the Gospel is too “burdensome” for the faithful to live, and therefore fail to preach it or to encourage the faithful.

This leads to the third sin of the priests that is mentioned by Malachi.

III. Sacerdotal Silence

True instruction was in [Levi’s] mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.” (Malachi 2:6-9)

Silent pulpits are all too common in the Church today. Some priests prefer to “play it safe,” fearing to preach about the issues of the day out of human weakness. Other priests do not believe certain teachings themselves or think them impractical in modern times. Still others, as the text says, have turned aside from the truth, preaching and teaching outright dissent. As such, the text further says, they cause many to stumble by preaching corruption.

It is tragic as well that so many are permitted to mislead the faithful and are not disciplined for it by their religious superiors.

The text says that a priest should guard knowledge. That is, he should protect it from those who would distort it and should refute error. He must also guard it from misunderstanding and see that it is presented in the balance of others truths in the Scripture and in Tradition. St. Paul says of a presbyter (a priest), He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).

The text of Malachi also warns against partiality, wherein a priest picks and chooses what truths he will teach or emphasize. St. Paul said to the elders at Miletus, Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). Yes, the whole counsel, the complete truth, is to be taught by the priest.

Malachi rebukes the priests of his day for their partial preaching and, sadly, some of these rebukes must still be made. Encourage your priests when they speak confidently and clearly. Thank them and give them support, even if they challenge you. The job of a priest is not to be popular but to be a prophet. It’s tough work and it doesn’t always bring cheers. But even the prophets need support from the 7000 who have still not bent the knee to Baal or kissed him (cf 1 Kings 19:18). Pray for priests and encourage them to announce the whole counsel of God.

These are some of the sins of the priests that God sets forth. Let us not forget that the world also has many hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and holy priests. Yet, as these texts remind us, too easily priests can lose their way; forgetting the glory of the liturgies they celebrate; referring to their office and the gospel as burdensome; and growing too silent out of either fear or laziness.

Pray for priests!

In tomorrow’s post, I will discuss the sins of the faithful, as listed in the Book of Malachi.

Adoration 2.0 – A Unique Insight Based on the Teaching of a Spiritual Master

blog10-28When we think of the word “adoration,” we think of a high form of love, perhaps the highest. Theologically, we equate adoration with latria, the worship and love due to God alone. In the vernacular, to say “I adore you” is to indicate an intense and high form of love.

Liturgically, adoration of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament indicates a period during which one enters into the experience of loving God and gazing upon Him in that love. The Lord, too, extends a gaze of love to us, as is beautifully stated in the Song of Songs: Behold, he is standing behind our wall, He is looking through the window, peering through the lattice (Song 2:9).

In all these examples there is a sort of intense, yet resting love expressed; a love that is tender and deep, quiet and fixed.

However, the greatest act of adoration the world has ever known exhibits little of this quietude or restfulness. Indeed, one might call this act of adoration quite stormy; though intense, it was not restful. In fact, you might not consider it adoration at all. But consider this reflection by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.:

Adoration of infinite value was offered to God by Christ in Gethsemane when he prostrated himself saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as though wilt.” Christ’s adoration of the Father recognized in a practical and profound manner the sovereign excellence of God … The Savior’s adoration continued on the cross (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol 2, p. 251).

At the heart of this most perfect act of adoration was obedience, a heart that not only loved God but out of that love wanted only what He wanted. True adoration of God includes both a loving acknowledgment of His excellence and a submission of our will to His in loving obedience. Out of love we offer our whole life to God.

Thus adoration is more than mere feeling, no matter how intense; it is sacrifice; it is the willing offering of one’s very self as an act of love to God, who has so loved us. No greater love is there than to lay down one’s life for God and for those we love in Him.

Is obedience and sacrifice what you and I mean when we say that we are going to Eucharistic adoration or when we say that we adore God? The most perfect act of adoration was love expressed as obedience and sacrifice.

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)).