Abbreviated Breviary? Pondering Omissions from the Current Breviary

liturgy-of-hoursOne of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.

But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.

Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:

Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).

Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).

Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58[57], 83[82], and 109[108]) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.

Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”

A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?

While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:

First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.

Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.

Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.

So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)

To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).

Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.

It is as if God is saying,

I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.

It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.

As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.

Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.

Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 [108]) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.

The Practices of Prayer

This Sunday’s readings speak to us of the power of persistent prayer. The first reading (Exodus 17:8-13) in particular depicts prayer quite powerfully. In it, we can discern six fundamental teachings on prayer.

I. The Problem for PrayerIn those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. None of us like problems, but one good thing about them is that they help to keep us praying. Israel was at war and her enemies were strong; it was time to pray.

The Gospel concerns a widow who is troubled about something, and this problem keeps her coming back to the judge. Sometimes God allows us to have problems in order to keep us praying. Problems also keep us humble and remind us of our need for God and others.

Problems aren’t the only reason we pray, but they are one important motivator. It shouldn’t be necessary for us to have problems, but they certainly have a way of summoning us to prayer.

II. The Priority of PrayerMoses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.

Notice that Joshua and the army did not go forth until after Moses took up his position of prayer. Prayer ought to precede any major decision or action.

We often rush into things without praying. We should begin each day with prayer. Important decisions should also elicit prayer from us. Prayer needs to come first; it has priority.

Too many people use prayer as a kind of rear-guard action through which they ask God to clean up the mess they’ve made. We end up doing a lot of things we shouldn’t because we didn’t pray first. We also end up doing a lot of things poorly that prayer might have clarified or enriched.

Prayer isn’t just about asking for this or that specific thing. It involves an ongoing relationship with God, through which we gradually receive a new mind and heart, and our vision and priorities are clarified and purified. The new mind and heart that we receive through prayer and the study of our faith are an essential part of the prayer that precedes decisions and actions.

III. The Power of PrayerAs long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.

As long as Moses prayed, Israel got the better of the battle, but when fatigue caused his prayer to diminish, Israel began to lose.

Prayer changes things. Here in this world, we may never fully know how our prayers helped to change history, but I am sure that one of the joys of Heaven will be to see what a difference our prayers—even the distracted and poor ones—made. In Heaven, we’ll tell stories of prayer’s power and will be able to appreciate the difference it made for us and for others. For now, much of this is hidden from our eyes, but one day, we’ll see with a glorious vision what prayer accomplished.

I suppose, too, that one of the pains of purgatory might be seeing the negative effects of our failure to pray and realizing that it was only God’s mercy that counteracted our laziness.

In this passage, Moses struggles to pray—so do we. Remembering prayer’s power is an important motivator to keep us on our knees and at our beads.

IV. The Partnership of PrayerMoses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other.

Moses knew that because of his fatigue he needed the assistance of Aaron and Hur. They all prayed together and, once again, Israel was strengthened and regained the upper hand.

Prayer is not supposed to be merely a solitary experience. While personal prayer is important, so is communal and group prayer. The Lord said, Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20). He also said, Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven (Matt 18:19).

We are taught to gather in prayer liturgically and also to find partners for prayer. Because prayer is so essential and we are individually so weak, we ought not to have it all depend on us. We need our own Aaron and Hur to support us in prayer and to help make up for our weakness.

Do you have some friends who help you, not only to pray but also to walk uprightly? Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up. … where a lone man may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:10,12).

Do not pray or journey alone. Find some spiritual friends to accompany you.

V. The Persistence of Prayerso that [Moses] hands remained steady till sunset.

With Aaron and Hur to help him, Moses prayed right through until sunset. They prayed right up to the endso must we. There is a mystery as to why God sometimes makes us wait, but we must continue to pray anyway. We may get frustrated, fatigued, or disheartened by the delay, but we must pray on. Like Moses, we should get friends to help us, be we must not stop praying.

Be like the woman in the Gospel, who just kept returning to that judge until he rendered justice for her. I have brought people back into the Church long after the spouse or parent who prayed for them died.

VI. The Product of PrayerAnd Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

The text says that the enemies of Israel were utterly defeated. This shows the powerful result of persistent prayer.

We may not fully see the results of our prayer on this side of the veil, but on glory’s side we one day will. We may not need God to mow down a foreign enemy for us, but how about enemies like fear, poverty, illness, and sin? Yes, we have enemies, and God answers prayers. Pray and then wait patiently for the product of prayer.

There you have it, six practices and teachings on prayer.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Practices of Prayer

What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

The Collect (Opening Prayer) for this week’s Masses (27th Week of the Year), though directed to God, teaches us that our prayer is not always about things with which we are comfortable. It sometimes leads us to examine areas of our life in which we struggle with sin or we struggle to desire to be free of sin. Here is the prayer:

Almighty ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.

After asking for God’s mercy and acknowledging that He offers us more than our minds can grasp, we make the following two requests:

(1)  [May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

(2)  [May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

[May you] pardon what conscience dreads.

The Catechism states the following regarding our conscience:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (# 1776).

Our conscience is not merely what we think or what it pleases us to think; it is the voice of God echoing in our depths. Whatever rationalizations we use to try to suppress our conscience, the voice of God still calls us deep inside. Deep down, we know very well what we are doing, and we know when it is wrong. No matter how many “teachers” we find who will tell us what our ears want to hear, that voice is still there.

I suspect that this is why the world and its devotees are so angry at the Catholic Church—we remind them of what God says. If our teachings were merely regarded as outdated opinions, the world would not hate us; it would not be at war with us. No matter how emphatically people deny that their conscience troubles them, deep down they know better. The louder these denials, the less we should be convinced. Why are they forever insisting that the Church change her teachings? If we’re just a pathetic and outdated institution, why do they care what we teach? Because deep down they know that we are right and do not like to be reminded of it.

Our words, the words of Christ, touch something; they prick the conscience and remind people of things they know inside but would rather forget. The voice of God echoes within, convicting them and inciting within them a godly dread of sin and its ultimate consequences.

This is true for believers as well, who, though not as openly hostile, would still prefer to avoid the voice of their conscience and do not enjoy the holy dread of sin it engenders. Note that not all sorrow for sin is from God. St. Paul distinguishes godly sorrow (which draws one to God for healing) from worldly sorrow (which deflates the sinner and has him despair of God’s healing love or of being able to change). The proper dread that conscience arouse is always a call of love from God, who bids us to repent and return to Him.

Still, we avoid what conscience dreads. Who likes to experience fear or negative feelings?

However, prayer must often ask us to look honestly at the less pleasing things in our life. This prayer bids us to listen to the dread of conscience (dread of sin and of its due punishments) and to seek pardon.

[May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.

Some argue that the translation of this clause is not a good one. The Latin used is quod oratio non praesumit. Some prefer a softer translation in which the phrase asks God to give us the things that we are not worthy of requesting, things we do not presume to ask for because it would be too bold for us to do so. Such a translation does not offend the Latin text but does seem to miss the overall context: asking God to help us to overcome personal resistance.

We have already seen how and why many of us resist what conscience dreads and would rather not hear the voice of God echoing inside, but consider that we are hesitant to ask for many things out of fear.

The classic example of this is St. Augustine’s request that God make him chaste … but not yet! Though he could see the value of chastity, Augustine enjoyed his promiscuity and was afraid to ask the Lord to take it away.

There are many things we dare not ask for because we fear actually getting them. It’s the “be careful what you wish for” attitude. For example, many are not ready to be chaste or to be more generous because they fear the changes that such things would bring. In such situations perhaps one could pray, “Lord, if I’m not chaste, at least give me the desire to be chaste,” or “Lord, if I don’t share sufficiently with the poor, at least give me the desire to do be more generous.” If we begin to desire what God is offering, we will be more chaste and more generous because we want to be. The fear of what prayer does not dare to ask abates. Then we are ready to ask God for what He really wants to give us.

The prayer is asking us to look at our resistance and fear and to pray out of that very experience rather than suppressing or denying it.

Consider well, then, the beautiful though difficult and daring invitation of this prayer. Though directed to God, it also bids us to look within and to admit our fears and our resistance.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Conscience Dreads and Prayer Dares Not Ask

On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

There is a text from the Acts of the Apostles that sets forth quite well some of the qualities of the Sacred Liturgy. Although the “liturgy” cited in this passage is not a Mass, the description should apply to all our liturgies; from the Liturgy of the Hours to baptism, from a penance service to a full sung Mass. Let’s look at the passage and learn from it the power of liturgy to deliver, instruct, and transform us and the world.

About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened, there was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.

When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” He asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family (Acts 15:25-33).

Determination About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened … Here they are in an awful place, a deep dungeon with rats and filth all about, and yet they are singing.

An old hymn reminds us to persevere in praise: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul, it is well.’” Yes, happiness is an inside job. There may be times when we don’t feel emotionally ready to praise God, but we have to command our soul. In the words of the psalm, I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).

Note that this is communal not personal prayer, and thus it is a kind of liturgy. They are singing hymns, a form of communal and liturgical prayer. More literally, the Greek text says that they were singing praises (humneo) to God. “Hymn” comes from humneo. Perhaps they were singing psalms or perhaps they were singing newly composed hymns such as we see in Philippians 2:5-11, Ephesians 1:3-14, or Colossians 1:15-19. But note their determination to praise the Lord anyway. Such praises will bring blessings, for when praises go up, blessings come down.

The Church must always be determined to celebrate the liturgy. The last thing we should ever consider stopping is the Mass! Recall how many priests and bishops locked up in prisons were earnest to obtain even the slightest scraps of bread or drops of wine in order to celebrate the Mass. Recall the many martyred priests during troubled times in England who risked everything to celebrate the Holy Mass. We must always be determined to pray, and whenever possible, to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, even at great risk.

Disturbance … suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook … Does our worship rock this world to its foundations? It should. The world ought to know and experience that we are at prayer! We should rock this world with our refusal to be discouraged at what it dishes out.

Further, good prayer, preaching, and the simple presence of the Church ought to shake things up a bit. It is said that a good preacher will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Each of us has a little of both within us.

Note that the early Christians were often arrested for being “disturbers of the peace.” They said politically dangerous things like “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar is Lord.” Religiously, they upset the order by announcing that many of the old rites were now fulfilled. Temple worship was over. Jesus was the true temple and Lord, and the Eucharist now supplanted the lucrative temple rites. Morally, the Church shook things up by demanding love of one’s enemies and that people no longer live as did the pagans, in the futility of their minds. These things and more tended to disturb the political, social, and religious order. Liturgically, we gather to celebrate and learn many earthshaking truths and to be liberated from the hold of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Yes, the presence of the early Church was a kind of earthquake. When the Church is strong she not only consoles; she disturbs and even rocks things to their foundations by the simple declaration, “Thus says the Lord” and by our praise of Him who is true Lord and Sovereign King, far outranking all other kings and those who demand our loyalty and conformity.

Deliverance … all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. The liturgy of praise and worship of God should effect an ongoing deliverance. The prayer of the Church in her liturgy should set people free: prison doors swing open, chains fall loose, and increasing freedom is granted to faithful.

I am a witness to this and I pray that you are as well. I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word Made Flesh in Holy Communion, and deep abiding fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cells of anxiety are no longer. Deliverance is what happened to us when the Lord took us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.

Dignity When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” The liturgy we celebrate is that of the Catholic Church. The term Catholic refers to the universality of the Church’s mission. All are to be called.

One effect of the liturgy on us should be that we neither hate nor exclude anyone. Paul and Silas do not gloat over the misfortune of their jailer. Knowing his dignity, they call out to him, even at the risk of their lives.

The Church, too, seeks the welfare and salvation of even our most bitter opponents. Our liturgy is celebrated not only for our friends but for the whole world.

The Church is Catholic; all are called. Painting a picture of the Church, Scripture says, I [John] looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9). I realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 34-35, 43).

Discipleship [The jailer] asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

Making disciples (not just members) is the primary job of the Church. To be a disciple is to be a follower of the Lord, but the word “disciple” also comes from the same Latin root (discere) as the word “learning.” Thus, the Church in her liturgy not only worships the Lord, she instructs the faithful and supplies the sacraments.

Note that the jailer asks for light. Do not think of this as merely a practical request. Asking for light is asking for the enlightenment that comes from Faith and Baptism. The Church in her liturgy and by her witness supplies light and acclimates the faithful to that light.

The jailer, having asked for the light, been instructed, and become accustomed to the light, is baptized.

Here, then, are some goals of and a description of true liturgy, one that rocks the world and yet delivers the faith, forming the people in the beauty of God’s grace. Do you and your fellow parishioners see the liturgy this way or do you see it as distant, even boring? See what this Scripture passage teaches about the truest goals and nature of every liturgy, great or small, in the Church.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

St. Monica and Prayers for Priests

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

In this time of pain in the Church, when God’s people are rightly disturbed by the sins of the clergy, many of you have assured me and I’m sure other clergy of your prayers for us. St. Monica, especially in this difficult time, is an image of prayers not only for her son but also for priests; for clearly, her son went on to become a priest and bishop.

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.

Like St. Augustine, I have always felt my mother’s prayers very powerfully. I pray that my mother, Nancy Geiman Pope, who died in 2005, is now at home with the Lord and has met St. Monica. 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. My mother said 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 home 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.

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 pray for me. Yes, I need a mantle of protection—and so do all other priests. Pray for priests! Pray, pray, pray!

So today on this Feast of St. Monica, my thoughts stretch to my mother. Thanks, Mom, for your prayers and for your wisdom. 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. You knew that precious gifts, like the priesthood, also come with burdens and temptations that require sober and vigilant prayer.

Thank you, dear readers and beloved parishioners, for your prayers as well. 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 St. Monica, 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? Yes, that’s yours truly in a needy moment; my mother is holding me up in prayer and care. She still does this from her current location—closer to the Lord, I pray. Her prayers still hold me, as mine hold her. Requiescat in Pace.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: St. Monica and Prayers for Priests

Three Teachings from the Lord on Prayer

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.

I. Pattern of Prayer The Gospel opens in this way: 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. He is giving us a pattern for prayer; He is “teaching us to pray.” The disciples 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.” Through these words, Jesus is illustrating what should be going on 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 Matthean version of the prayer only because it is more familiar to most people, but all the basic elements are the same.

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 deity” or “the Godhead.” We are praying to our Father, who loves us and 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 familiar form of the more formal “Father.” When my own father was alive, I called him “Dad” not “Father.” The word Abba indicates family ties, intimacy, close bonds. Why Abba is not used in the Our Father is uncertain. St. Paul develops the theme: 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 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 Praise of God is an essential discipline and element of our spiritual life. 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 we do not feel like praising God. Praise Him 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.

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, His instruction, and His plan for us and this world. When Jesus lives in us, we hunger for God’s Word; we strive to know His will and make 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 is manifest to us and we can obey. We ought to pray the Scriptures (lectio divina) and 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.

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.

Through intercessory prayer, we ask for God’s help in every need. Take every opportunity to pray for others. When watching or reading the news, pray. Pray for victims of crime, natural disaster, or war. Pray for the unemployed, the homeless, the afflicted. Pray for those locked in sin, bad behavior, corruption, confusion, misplaced 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 and read about, and we should be grateful, asking that solutions be lasting. Intercessory prayer flows from our love for and solidarity with others. We see the world with the compassion of Christ and pray, for others as well as ourselves.

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 (referred to here as “trespasses”), and (2) Sin (upper case) refers to the whole climate of sin, the structures of sin (referred to here as “evil”) that reinforce and underlie our own personal sins.

An essential element of our spiritual life is recognizing our sins and the deep drives of sin in our life so that we can beg for mercy as well as for deliverance from them.

We live in a sin-soaked world, a world in which the powers and principalities of evil have great influence. We must recognize this and pray that this power will be curbed.

We must also pray for the grace to show mercy to others, for it often happens that sin escalates through resentment and the desire for retribution rooted in an unforgiving attitude. We must pray to be delivered from these in order to break the cycle of violence and revenge that keeps sin multiplying.

We must pray for the Lord’s grace and mercy to end evil in our own life and in the whole world.

This, then, is a structure for our prayer life and our spiritual life, contained in the Our Father. Jesus teaches us to pray and gives us a basic pattern. Some may use it as an actual structure for daily prayer. For example, if praying for twenty-five minutes, one might spend about five minutes on each aspect. Others may use it as an overall pattern for their spiritual life in general, trying to reflect these aspects and disciplines well.

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.

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

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

    • Our faith is not strong enough. Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22). 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).
    • 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).
    • 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).
    • 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).
    • God cannot trust us with blessings because we are not conformed to His word or have proved untrustworthy 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)

There is nothing wrong with any of these explanations, but even if not a single one of them applies to us, God often delays anyway.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

One day a man prayed to God and asked, “How long is a million years to you?” The Lord replied, “About a minute.” The man then asked, “How much is a million dollars to you?” God answered, “About a penny.” Seeing an opportunity, the man then asked, “Well, then, 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! 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, persisting. St. Monica prayed for thirty years, it would seem, for her son 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.

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; 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 was 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, jobs, and financial blessings—and for some people 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 in this world 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!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Three Teachings from the Lord on Prayer

The Priority of Personal Prayer

This Sunday’s Gospel is the very familiar story of Martha and Mary. Martha is the anxious worker seeking to please the Lord with a good meal and hospitality; Mary sits quietly at His feet and listens. One has come to be the image of work, the other of prayer.

Misinterpreted? In my lifetime I have heard many a sermon that interpreted this passage as a call for a proper balance between work and prayer. Some have gone on to state that we all need a little of Martha and Mary in us and that the Church needs both Marthas and Marys.

Such a conclusion seems to miss the central point of this Gospel passage. Jesus does not conclude by saying, “Martha, now go do your thing, and let Mary do hers.” Rather, He describes Mary not only as choosing the better part but also doing the “one thing necessary.” This does not amount to a call for “proper balance” but rather underscores the priority and primacy of prayer. This, it would seem, is the proper interpretation of what is being taught. Many other passages of the Scripture do set forth the need to be rich in works of charity, but this is not one of them.

With that in mind let’s take a look at the details of the Lord’s teaching today on the priority of personal prayer.

I. PROMISING PRELUDE Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. In the beginning of the story Martha is shown in a very favorable light. She opens her door (her life, if you will) and welcomes Jesus. This is at the heart of faith: a welcoming of Jesus into the home of our heart and our life. Surely, Revelation 3:20 comes to mind: Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me.

While we acknowledge this promising prelude, we ought not to miss the fact that it is Jesus who initiates the interaction. The text says that Jesus entered a village. In the call of faith, the initiative is always with God. It was not you who chose me; it was I who chose you (Jn 15:16). Hence, while we must welcome Him, God leads. Martha hears the Lord’s call and responds. So far, so good.

What happens next isn’t exactly clear, but the impression given is that Martha goes right to work. There is no evidence that Jesus asked her to prepare a meal for Him. The text from Revelation quoted above does suggest that the Lord seeks to dine with us, but it implies that it is He who will provide the meal. Surely, the Eucharistic context of our faith emphasizes that it is the Lord who feeds us with His Word and with His Body and Blood.

At any rate, Martha seems to have told the Lord to make Himself comfortable and has gone off to prepare the meal. That she later experiences it to be such a burden is evidence that her idea emerged more from her flesh than from the Spirit.

II. PORTRAIT of PRAYER She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now here is a beautiful portrait of prayer: Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening.

Many people think of prayer as something that is recited or said, but it is better understood as a conversation—and conversations include both speaking and listening. Vocal prayer, intercessory prayer, and the like are all noble and important, but the prayer of listening is too often neglected.

Prayer is not just telling God what we want; it is discovering what He wills. We have to sit humbly and listen. We must learn to listen, and we must listen in order to learn. We listen by slowly and devoutly considering Scripture (lectio divina) and by pondering how God is speaking in the events and people in our life, how God is whispering in our conscience and soul.

As we shall see, Jesus calls this kind of prayer “the one thing necessary.” What Mary models and Martha forgets is that we must first come (to Jesus) and then go (and do what He says), that we must first receive before we can achieve, that we must first be blessed before we can do our best, that we must first listen before we leap into action.

III. PERTURBED and PRESUMPTUOUS Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Martha, who is laboring in the flesh but not likely in the Spirit and in accord with the Lord’s wishes, is now experiencing the whole thing as a burden. She blames her sister, but the Lord’s response will make it clear that this is not Mary’s issue.

One sign that we are not doing God’s will is experiencing what we are doing as a burden. We are all human and thus limited; we will naturally feel ordinary fatigue. However, it is one thing to be weary in the work but another to be weary of the work.

A lot of people run off to do something they think is a good idea—and maybe it is a fine thing in itself—but often, they haven’t ever asked God about it. God might have said, “Fine,” but He also might have said, “Not now, later.” Or He might have said, “Not you, but someone else.” Or He might just have said, “No.” Instead of asking, however, they often just go off and do it, and then when things don’t work out will blame God, saying, “Why don’t you help me more?”

Martha feels burdened. First, she blames her sister. Then she presumes that the Lord does not care about what is (to her) an obvious injustice. Then she takes presumption one step further and presumes to tell the Lord what to do: “Tell her to help me.”

This is what happens when we try to serve the Lord in the flesh. Instead of being true servants who listen to the Lord’s wishes and carry them out by His grace, we end up angry and mildly (or more) dictatorial. So, here is Martha, with her one hand on her hip and her index finger in the air . Jesus will be kind to her, but firm.

IV. PRESCRIBED PRIORITY Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. Don’t let the Lord have to call you by your name twice! It is clear that He wants Martha’s attention and that she has made a fatal mistake (one we all can easily make): she leapt before she listened.

The Lord observes her and remarks that she is anxious about many things. Anxiety about many things comes from neglect of the one thing necessary: sitting at the feet of the Lord and listening to Him.

The Lord will surely have things for us to do in our life, but they need to come from Him. This is why prayer is the “one thing necessary” and the better part: because work flows from it and is subordinate to it.

Discernment is not easy, but it is necessary. An awful lot of very noble ideas have floundered in the field of the flesh because they were never really brought before God and therefore were not works of grace.

Jesus does not mean that all we are to do is to pray. There are too many other Gospels that summon us to labor in the vineyard to make such a conclusion. What Jesus is very clear to say is that prayer and discernment have absolute priority. Otherwise, expect to be anxious about many things and have little to show for it.

Scripture makes it clear that God must be the author and initiator of our works: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

An old prayer from the Roman Ritual also makes this plain:

Actiones nostras, quaesumus Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere: ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur. Per Christum Dominum nostrum.

(Direct we beseech Thee, O Lord, our prayers and our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every work of ours may always begin with Thee, and through Thee be ended.)

This song reminds us that when we really are working in the Lord’s will, as the fruit of prayer we love what we do and do so with joy. This song says, “I keep so busy working for the Kingdom I ain’t got time to die!”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Priority of Personal Prayer

Prayer and Fasting or Just Prayer? A Consideration of a Biblical “Disagreement”

Bread and wheat on wooden table, shallow DOFGiven the Gospel reading for Monday of the Seventh Week, and with the ongoing interest in demonology, Jesus’ instruction that demons must be driven out with prayer and fasting (cf Mk 9:29, Matt 17:21) is frequently quoted. And many people are acquainted with this text in this form.

But a problem emerges for some people when they go to their Bible to look up those texts. Some Bibles include the reference to fasting while others do not. For example, the two most common Catholic Bibles, the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE) and the Revised New American Bible (RNAB), render Mark 9:29 differently.

  • This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting (RSVCE).
  • This kind can only come out through prayer (RNAB).

And in Matthew 17:21, which recounts the same incident that Mark 9:29 does, prayer and fasting aren’t mentioned at all in either the RSVCE or the RNAB version. Older Bibles such as the Douay Rheims (DR) and the King James (KJV), however, do:

  • But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting (DR).
  • Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting (KJV).

So what is going on here?

The ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are remarkably consistent, especially considering that they were handwritten by scribes, who might accidentally skip or misspell a word. But there are some discrepancies. Most textual variations are easily resolved by comparing several ancient manuscripts to identify misspellings and/or dropped words. There are some variations, however, that are not as easily resolved, especially when it is a case of one erroneous manuscript being copied numerous times and distributed. But even in that situation, a little detective work can usually find the root problem and distinguish between an erroneous text and a correct one.

But there are times when certain textual variations cannot be resolved and biblical scholars either do not agree or cannot be certain as to which is the most authentic version. Mark 9:29 is one of those texts. Some ancient manuscripts include the words “and fasting” (και νηστεια) while others do not.

For the benefit of the technocrats who are reading this, the following manuscripts support the translation that includes both fasting and prayer: P45vid2 A C D K L N W Γ Δ Θ Ψ ƒ1,13 28. 33. 565. 579. 700. 892. 1241. 1424. 2542. ℓ 2211 ???? lat syh co (sys.p boms). These ancient manuscripts, however, support the translation that does not include fasting: ℵ B 0274 k.

While the manuscripts that favor including fasting are far more numerous, it is not necessarily a question of mere numbers. This is because not all ancient manuscripts are considered to be of equal value. Most modern scholars favor the translation that excludes the reference to fasting because the manuscripts that do not mention it are ones that they weight more heavily. So even though many manuscripts do include the words “and fasting,” the earliest and “best” manuscripts do not include it. Critics of this current consensus view object to the presumption that fasting reflects a later concern of the Church. They also think that the most common “go-to” source (Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament) has been too influential. Welcome to the wonderful world of biblical textual criticism (analysis)!

The issue with Matthew 7:21 being wholly lacking in most modern Bibles has a similar explanation, though in this case the consensus is even stronger because the oldest and best Greek manuscripts lack the verse. And even those manuscripts that do, seem to show it in the margins as more of a side comment or a reference back to Mark 9:29.

So, all of this goes toward explaining why some of our modern Bibles report Jesus as saying that certain types of demons must be driven out by “prayer and fasting,” while others simply say “prayer.”

But is this just an academic exercise? What are there pastoral considerations?

The main pastoral (and liturgical) question would seem to be this: “Is fasting required to drive out demons or not?” The ambiguity of the textual evidence (as described above) allows that reasonable people may differ as to whether strict fasting is required and to what extent it is helpful. There are certain considerations to be made.

Even if certain demons are best driven out by prayer and fasting, we must never forget that it is God who drives out demons, and He doesn’t need our fasting to do so. Any prideful notions about the effects of our fasting should be strictly avoided.

Indeed, we ought to have a kind of humility regarding fasting. Fasting is certainly recommended, and the Lord Himself says that there is a time for fasting (cf Mk 2:20, Luke 5:35). But fasting can also be a source of pride (Lk 18:12, Lk 5:33). Fasting done out of pride or superiority isn’t going to drive out any demons; in fact it will likely attract them.

In longer exorcisms (which can go on for months), fasting may need to be mitigated or else assigned to members who are not part of the team directly involved in the exorcism. Physical strength is often needed to withstand the grueling work of major exorcism.

With such precautions in mind, and in spite of the textual variations in the “prayer and fasting” text of Scripture, the instinct of the Church is that casting out demons is best assisted by both prayer and fasting. The current Rite of Exorcism (2004) says,

The Exorcist, mindful that the tribe of demons cannot be cast out except through prayer and fasting, should take care that these two most effective remedies for obtaining divine help be used, after the example of the Holy Fathers, both by himself and by others, insofar as is possible (De Exorcismis # 31).

The Older Rite (1614) also advises,

Therefore, he will be mindful of the words of our Lord (Mt. 17:20), to the effect that there is a certain type of evil spirit who cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting. Therefore, let him avail himself of these two means above all for imploring the divine assistance in expelling demons, after the example of the holy fathers; and not only himself, but let him induce others, as far as possible, to do the same (De Exorcizandis # 10).

Why or how does fasting add power to prayer? One reasonable (and biblical) answer is that prayer and worship should generally involve sacrifice. Scripture says,

  • Understand these things, you that forget God; lest he snatch you away, and there be none to deliver you. The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me: and there is the way by which I will show him my salvation, says the Lord (Psalm 50:22-23).
  • 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 13:15-16).
  • You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread … And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors (ex 23:15-16).

There has developed in Western world the strange notion of worship and praise without sacrifice. In many sectors, worship has devolved to little more than a form of entertainment, wherein the whims and preferences of the faithful are expected to be catered to. Worship, by this notion, should be brief and should take place in comfortable, air-conditioned churches with padded pews and convenient parking. The “message” and liturgy should not be intellectually or morally challenging; rather they should be encouraging and pleasing. The music and “style” of liturgy should meet the preferences of those assembled.

Missing in all of this is the concept that liturgy and prayer should involve sacrifice, that they should “cost” us something. Yet Scripture clearly links prayer and sacrifice and indicates that they should, to some degree, be found together. Sacrifice is a way of establishing greater sincerity in, and integrity to, our worship. Indeed, worship without sacrifice too easily becomes lip service or turns God into a kind of divine butler, whom we expect to wait on us. God surely does supply our needs but He is no butler; He is God, who is worthy of our worship and the sacrifice of praise.

It is in this sense that prayer and fasting belong together, especially in the difficult work of driving out demons. Prayer and fasting become the sacrifice of praise that confounds and disturbs the evil one to no end. Scripture says, And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, for I will offer in his tent sacrifices of praise with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD (Psalm 27:6).

It is the instinct of the Church that prayer is good, but that prayer with sacrifice (fasting is sacrificial) wins through, especially in that most difficult work of expelling demons and repelling the enemy.

The question of how best to translate Mark 9 and Matthew 17 is a legitimate one. But the long experience of the Church ought not to be neglected. And experience teaches plainly enough that as a general norm,

This kind cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting (Mk 9:29).

 

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Prayer and Fasting or Just Prayer? A Consideration of a Biblical “Disagreement”