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”

Biblical Basics about Mother Mary – A Homily for the Second Sunday of the Year

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

In this Sunday’s Gospel passage of the wedding feast at Cana, there is a theological portrait of both Mother Mary and prayer. Let’s look at the Gospel along five lines:

I. The place that Mary has – The text says, There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.

A fascinating thing about these opening verses is that Mary almost seems to dominate the scene; the presence of Jesus is mentioned only secondarily. St. Thomas Aquinas notes that at Cana, Mary acts as the “go-between” in arranging a mystical marriage (Commentary on John, 98; and 2, 1, n.336, 338, and 343, 151-152). Once the marriage is arranged, she steps back; her final words to are these: “Do whatever he tells you.”

How many of us has Mary helped to find her Son and to find our place at the wedding feast of the Lamb? I know that it was Mary who drew me back to her Son when I had strayed.

II. The prayer that Mary makes – The text says, When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”

Notice another central role that Mary has: intercessor. She is praying to her Son for others. There are three qualities to her prayer:

Discernment – Mary notices the problem, probably even before the groom and bride do. Indeed, mothers often notice the needs of their children before they do. Why didn’t Jesus notice? Surely, as God, He knew, but He waits for us to ask. Yes, God waits for us; He expects us to ask Him. In part this is respect; not all of us are ready to receive all His gifts. This expectation that we ask is also rooted in God’s teaching that we must learn to depend on Him and to take our many needs to Him. The Book of James says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2).

Diligence – Simply put, Mary prays. Rather than merely fretting and being anxious, she goes directly to her Son out of love for the couple (us) and trust in her Son. She sees the need and gets right to the work of praying, of beseeching her Son.

Deference – Mary does not tell Jesus what to do, she simply points out the need: “They have no wine.” Mary is not directive, as if to say, “Here is my solution for this problem. Follow my plans exactly. Just sign here at the bottom of my plan for action.” Rather, she simply observes the problem and places it before her Son in confidence. He knows what to do and will decide the best way to handle things.

In this way Mary, models prayer for us. What wine are you lacking now? What wine do your children and grandchildren lack? Do you notice your needs and the needs of others and consistently pray? Or must things get critical for you to notice or pray? When you pray, do you go to the Lord with trust or with your own agenda?

So, Scripture teaches that Mary is the quintessential woman of prayer, a paragon of prayer. Not only does she intercede for us, she teaches us how to pray.

III. The portrait of Mary – The text says, Woman, how does this concern of yours affect me? My hour has not yet come. His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” Notice three things about this brief dialogue:

The title of Mary Jesus calls her “woman.” In Jewish culture this was a respectful way for a man to address a woman, but it was unheard of for a son to address his mother in this fashion.

Hence, this text stands out as unusual and signals that Jesus is speaking at a deeper level. In the Johannine texts, Jesus always calls his Mother, “Woman.” This is in fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, which says, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, while you strike at his heel. Thus, Jesus is saying that Mary is this woman who was prophesied.

Far from being disrespectful to Mary, Jesus is exalting her by saying that she is the woman who was prophesied; she is the woman from whose “seed” comes forth the Son destined to destroy the power of Satan.

In this sense Mary is also the new Eve. Jesus also calls her “Woman” at the foot of the cross; He is the new Adam while Mary is the new Eve, and the tree is the cross. Thus, just as humans got into trouble by a man, a woman, and a tree, so now we get out of trouble through the same path. Adam’s no is reversed by Jesus, who saves us by his yes. Eve’s no is reversed by Mary’s yes.

The tenacity of Mary – In Greek, Jesus’ words to his mother are these: τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι – ti emoi kai soi, gunai (What to me and to thee, Woman?). When this phrase appears elsewhere in the Scriptures (e.g., Gen 23:15; 1 Kings 19:20) it usually indicates tension between the interlocutors. On the surface, it would seem that Jesus is resisting his mother’s attempt to involve him in this matter. What makes this interpretation odd, though, is that Mary doesn’t appear to interpret Jesus’ response as resistance.

Perhaps there was something in the tone of voice that Jesus used, or perhaps there was a look between them that resolved the tension and evoked Jesus’ sympathy for the situation. Whatever the case, Mary stays in the conversation with Jesus and overcomes whatever tension or resistance existed. In this we surely see her tenacity.

We can see Mary’s tenacity at other times: Though startled by the presence of the angel Gabriel, she engaged him in a respectful but pointed conversation in which she sought greater detail. Mary also hastened to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and in the dialogue that followed she proclaimed a Magnificat that was anything but a shy and retiring prayer. She joyfully acknowledged the Lord’s power in her life and all but proclaimed a revolutionary new world order.

To be tenacious means to hold fast despite obstacles or discouragements. However we interpret Jesus’ initial resistance to Mary’s concern, it is clear that she does not give up; she expects the Lord to answer her favorably. This is made clear by her confident departure from the conversation, when she turns to the stewards with this instruction: “Do whatever he tells you.”

The trust of Mary – She simply departs, telling the stewards, “Do whatever he tells you.” She does not hover. She does not come back and check on the progress of things. She does not try to control or manipulate the outcome. She simply departs and leaves it all to Jesus.

IV. The power of Mary’s prayer – Whatever his initial concerns regarding Mary’s request, Jesus goes to work. Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told them, “Fill the jars with water.” So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it. And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from—although the servers who had drawn the water knew—the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.”

If we do the math, we can estimate that Jesus produced almost 150 gallons of the best wine. Mary’s prayer and tenacity produced abundant results.

Sometimes the Lord tells us to wait so that He can grant further abundance. Scripture says, But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31).

The Catholic tradition of turning to Mary and regarding her as a special intercessor with particular power is rooted in this passage. Mary is not merely an intercessor for us, though; she is also a model. Following her example, we should persevere in prayer and go to the Lord with confident expectation of His abundant response. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16).

V. The product of Mary’s prayer – The text says, Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory and his disciples began to believe in him.

At the conclusion of this Gospel is the significant result that many began to believe in the Lord as a result of this miracle. This is Mary’s essential role with reference to Jesus, that she should lead many souls to a deeper union with her Son. Having done so, she leaves us with this instruction: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Mary’s role is to hold up Christ for us to see, as she did at Bethlehem for the shepherds (and later the Wise Men) and for Simeon and Anna at the Temple. Her role is to point to His glory as she does here at Cana. Ultimately, Mary’s role is to hold Jesus’ body in her arms at the foot of the cross after He is taken down.

As a mother, Mary has a special role in the beginnings of our faith, in the infancy and childhood of our faith. The text says that many “began to believe.” In Greek grammar, this phrase is an example of an inceptive aorist, often used to stress the beginning of an action or the entrance into a state. Thus, Mary has a special role in helping to initiate our faith, in helping (by God’s grace) to birth Christ in us. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, she is the “go-between,” the great matchmaker in the mystical marriage of Christ and the soul. Having done that, her final words are these: “Do whatever he tells you.” And while she may draw back a bit, she continues to pray for us.

Here, then, are some biblical basics about Mother Mary, gleaned from this Gospel passage of the wedding feast at Cana.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Biblical Basics about Mother Mary – A Homily for the Second Sunday of the Year

A Prayer for the Internet from the 1946 Roman Ritual? Sure, and It’s Wonderful!

telegraphThe old Roman Ritual (published in 1946) is a magnificent collection of blessings and prayers. It has some of the most amazing little blessings of things it would never occur to you to find in such a collection. Along with the blessings of expected objects (e.g., statues, religious medals) are blessings, often elaborately laid out, for things such as seismographs, typewriters, printing presses, fishing boats, fire engines, stables, medicine, wells, bridges, archives, lime kilns, automobiles, mountain-climbing equipment, and electric dynamos.

In that old ritual (which it is permitted to use), there is a remarkable prayer for a telegraph—yes, a telegraph. It quite elaborately lays out psalms and antiphons, but I will only present here the prayer of gratitude at the end, just before blessing it with Holy Water.

To my mind, it is also applicable as a prayer, expression of gratitude, and blessing for a computer or for the extended “cloud” of computers known as the Internet. The prayer is both thrilling and fitting. It is a minor masterpiece if you ask me. Though written sometime prior to 1945, and likely after 1830, its basic structure fits well what we do now with the Internet.

Without further ado, here is the prayer, first in the original Latin, and then translated by Father Philip Weller:

Deus qui ámbulas super pennas ventórum, et facis mirabília solus: concéde, ut per vim huic metállo índitam fulmíneo ictu celérius huc abséntia, et hinc álio praeséntia transmíttis; ita nos invéntis novis edócti, tua grátia opitulánte, prómptius et facílius ad te veníre valeámus. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum. Amen.

O God, who walkest upon the wings of the wind, and alone workest wonders; by the power inherent in this metal, thou dost bring hither distant things quicker than lightning, and transferrest present things to distant places. Therefore, grant that, instructed by new inventions, we may merit, by thy bounteous grace, to come with greater certainty and facility to thee. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sign of the Cross + and sprinkling with Holy Water

Magnificent! It almost paints a picture in the mind. Yes, such beauty, and a picture of the swiftness of information going hither and yon, like lightning, or as on the wings of the wind. May this wondrous tool serve to draw us closer to God and not be corrupted by sinful curiosity, hostility, defamation, profanation, or prurient temptations.

One word, “metal,” may need adjusting in order to use it for a computer or the Internet. What word would you suggest (perhaps silicon)? Perhaps simply “computer” would work, but more is in mind: the whole Internet is part of what we are grateful for and ask blessings for. Of course we may not be in a position to bless the entire Internet, and our blessing or prayer of gratitude is only to be directed to our computer, our one portal to the vast communication network. Anyway, this is just a thought.

The video below of the history of the telegraph reminds us that the first telegraph message sent by Samuel Morse was “What hath God wrought?” This almost seems to have influenced the prayer in the ritual!

 

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.

In Troubled Times, a Priest Must Pray and Conform His Heart to God

In times like these, when Church reform is so urgent, priests must refocus and re-center their lives more clearly than ever. Through prayer and study every priest must guard his heart and, in so doing be more empowered to help God’s people do the same.

Two images come to mind, one of prayer and the other of study, but both summon the priest to guard his heart and center his mind on God and what God teaches.

The first image is from the Book of Leviticus:

The fire on the altar shall be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest is to add wood to the fire, arrange the burnt offering on it, and burn the fat portions of the peace offerings on it. The fire must be kept burning on the altar continually; it must not go out, it must not go out! (Leviticus 6:12-13)

The fire referred to here is the one on the altar before the ancient Temple or Tent of Meeting, but for our purposes it is an image of prayer. The prayer of the priest for himself and his people is a fire that must never go out. Prayer, as a conversation with God, must not end. Every morning the priest is to add wood to this fire of prayer; he is to offer a sacrifice of praise and beg God on behalf of His people.

As priests, we are directed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, sometimes called the “breviary,” or the “office.” We are also called to spend time before God in quiet prayer and attentiveness, so that hearing what He says we can then offer His teaching to the faithful.

The text here is emphatic: this fire (of prayer) must not go out; it must never be extinguished. A priest who stops praying is dangerous to himself and others.

Encourage your priests to pray. Say to him, “Father, I am counting on your prayers for me.” Be specific in your gentle reminder to him: “Father, when you pray the office, please remember me.” “Father, in your Holy Hour and visits to the Blessed Sacrament, please remember my family.” In so doing you remind him of his obligation to pray and that you are presuming he is doing so.

Priests must pray. This is a fire that must never be extinguished!

The second image is one of prayerful study and careful teaching.

In his treatise, The Book of the Pastoral Rule, Pope Saint Gregory the Great applies details from the Old Testament priesthood to the priests of the New Covenant. In one reflection, he remarks on the details of the breastplate of the high priest and what they signify.

In effect, Pope Gregory instructs the priest to guard his heart, keeping it safe from the poison of false doctrine and from misplaced affections, wherein he fears man more than God and desires the approval of man more than speaking the truth. In one section he writes,

Thus, it was assigned by the divine Voice that on the breast of Aaron, the vestment of judgment should be closely bound by bands (Exodus 28:15, 28). This was so that the heart of the priest would not possess fluctuating thoughts, but be bound by reason alone. Nor should he consider indiscreet or unnecessary thoughts (Pastoral Rule Part II.2).

Note the use of the word “bands.” At the root of the meaning of the word “religion” is the same concept. The Latin root of the word religion speaks of being bound closely to or embraced by God (re (again) + ligare (to bind)). Thus, the virtue of religion binds one’s heart, mind, and soul to God. We are held tightly by Him in an embrace of love and truth.

The bands of the high priest’s breastplate warn him not to waiver, wander, or be carried off from the love and truth of God. We are not to be enamored of the world or its lies; neither should we embrace or cling to them. The priest is to cling to God and be held close by Him, not wandering off in all different directions. Being held close by God, the priest’s own beating heart begins to synchronize with the heart of God. Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks to heart). Gradually the priest’s heart will become much like God’s, loving the things and people of God with proper and ordered affection and wanting only what God wants.

Further, being held fast by God will also preserve the priest from what Gregory calls indiscreet or unnecessary thoughts. Indiscreet matters are those into which we ought not to delve or pry. The priest should properly seek to know only those things he needs to know. He should also remember that there are many things he cannot fully know, many of the deep mysteries of God about which he must humbly admit he knows little.

As for “unnecessary thoughts,” this surely refers to the thousands of trifling things that often occupy the minds of many people throughout the day: sports, celebrities, or the minutia of popular culture. We can think too much of frivolous things and not enough about glorious, edifying, and lasting ones.

Pope St. Gregory continues,

… It was strictly added that the names of the twelve patriarchs should also be depicted (Exodus 28:29). For to carry always the inscribed fathers on the breast is to meditate on the life of the ancients without interruption … to consider unceasingly the footsteps of the Saints.

Yes, every priest should be deeply rooted in the wisdom of the saints and in the ancient and lasting truth revealed by God in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. To be a true Christian is to be deeply rooted in these things, always going back to that which is ancient and proposing it ever anew. The truths of God are non nova sed nove (not new things but understood newly).

St. Gregory continues,

 [The breastplate] is fittingly called a “vestment of judgment” because the spiritual director should always discern between good and evil. … Concerning this it is written: “But you shall put on the breastplate of judgment, the doctrine and truth, which will be on Aaron’s breast … and [the priest shall] not add an element of human reasoning as he dispenses his judgments on behalf of God. … Otherwise, personal affections might get in the way of zealous correction …

Here Pope Gregory warns against the human tendency to compromise the truth or to engage in rationalization. We can add to the Word of God or subtract from it, but either way we render harm to the purity it should always have in our heart, in our mind, and on our lips.

Too many priests, preachers, and teachers get carried away with trendy notions or theological speculations that can begin to substitute for the true word of God. All the priest’s judgments about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, should be deeply rooted in the wisdom and the truth of God. They should not be tainted by dubious opinions, trends, fashions, unbalanced notions, or even his own sinful inclinations and his desire to rationalize them.

The priest must also be aware of personal affections and preferences. Too often in human affairs, who said something becomes more important than what he said. St. Paul says, Test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 5:21-22).

Pope St. Gregory concludes,

If one fearfully considers the One who presides over all things, then he will not direct his subjects without fear.

Fear is a very deep human problem. Too many priests, parents, teachers, and others in the Church fear human beings rather than God. God would have us simplify things in our life by fearing Him alone and then not having to fear thousands of others.

Yes, too many priests and other leaders cower before congregations and preach so vaguely and blandly that almost no one can remember what was said; their obfuscations disguise the Word of God more than they reveal it.

The first question every preacher and teacher should ask himself is this: What would God think of what I have said today? Unfortunately, too many of us who preach are more concerned with the opinions of men. The fear that a preacher should have is not whether his congregation is pleased, but rather whether God, who will judge him one day, is pleased. If he fears God, then he will direct his people with holy fear not out of a fear of man. He will have a proper and holy reverence for God, to whom we must one day be accountable for our office. May neither our silence nor our rash speech condemn us!

Pray for priests and encourage them to stay faithful to prayer and to the divine fonts of truth. May every priest pray and guard his heart and mind!

Sweet Hour of Prayer! Or Not? How do You Experience Prayer?

111914How do you think of prayer? Is it another thing you “have to do” among many other things on your list? Or is prayer a time when you refrain from doing? Is prayer a requirement you regret or a rest you relish? What is prayer for you?

The danger in answering questions like these is that we may answer them the way we think they “should” be answered rather than in an honest way. Many struggle with prayer and experience it with a lot of negativity: boredom, distraction, drudgery, and so forth.

The fact is, prayer is tough. We are very sensory by nature and used to seeing and hearing the one to whom we speak. To encounter God in silence and without sight is unfamiliar, jarring, and challenging. Some use icons or pictures, some a prayer book; some pray before the Blessed Sacrament. But in the end, the eyes of the flesh cannot see, only the eyes of the heart, the eyes of faith can. This is not only difficult, it is obnoxious to our flesh (i.e., sinful nature), which demands to see and hear on its own terms. And the flesh wages war on our spirit (cf Gal 5:17) and like a fidgeting child protests all throughout prayer.

Of course the best way to address this problem is with honesty. Without honesty we don’t really have a spiritual life. A true journey to God requires that all the masks come off, that all the little lies we like to tell ourselves and all the deceptions be set aside. Start with honesty.

Praying out of what is – When people tell me they have a hard time praying I say, “Then THAT is your prayer. Tell God how absolutely bored you are when you pray. Tell Him that you would rather do just about anything than pray to Him. Tell Him that when it occurs to you that you should pray, or when some crazy priest reminds you to pray, your heart sinks and you put it off and put it off. Tell God you hate praying … And do you know what you are doing as you tell Him all this? You are praying!”

Yes, this is prayer.

“But Father, but Father, I can’t talk to God like that!” “Why not?” I say. God already knows that this is how you feel. It’s a pretty silly thing to sit in front of God wearing a mask that He can see right through: but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13). Five minutes of a prayer of honesty is better than two hours of a prayer of rhetoric and “stained glass” themes that we don’t really mean. Pray honestly; talk to God about what is really going on.

The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible and it has God for its author. And notice how plain-spoken the psalms are.

Every emotion, every experience is grist for the prayer mill: joy, serenity, victory, thanksgiving, petition, anger (even anger at God!), rage, vengefulness, disappointment, loss, grief, fear, and despair. It’s all there and more. There are even psalms that ask God to harm or kill our enemy (69, 109, 137). Even the beautiful Psalm 139 ends with the request that God slay the wicked. But these are feelings we have from time to time and God wants us to talk to Him about them. If the Book of Psalms is a directive for prayer (and it is), then God wants us to speak to Him about everything, even the darkest and most sinful of things. Prayer is conversation with God. But it has to be honest.

And something starts to happen when we become really honest in prayer. Little by little, it becomes more relevant to us and we even start to like it a bit. Now don’t tell your flesh that! But your soul starts to breathe; it starts to exhale. When all the little self-imposed, unbiblical rules about prayer and all the things we’re “not supposed to say to God” get set aside, the soul enjoys freedom, and the honesty is refreshing.

And little by little, prayer becomes not so much another thing to do as it is a rest from all our doing. It is a time to rest, to exhale, to sigh, and to be refreshed by the simple act of being honest with someone who loves us and whom we are growing to love. Someone who, before ever a word is on our lips, knows it through and through (Psalm 139:4). Prayer is the freedom to be honest, to rest from the labor of wearing masks, and to be relieved of the restless anxiety about what others think or expect of us. Prayer is a sigh of truth, a rest from the contradictory demands of an often phony world.

Consider this description of prayer from St. Anselm:

Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him. And when you have shut the door, look for him, speak to God … (Proslogion, Chapter 1).

Yes, speak to God. Be honest. Tell Him what is really happening. If you need a manual to assist you, get a good Bible or copy of the psalms—one that gives a title or a brief sentence describing its content. Find one that suits you on this particular day and then read it, slowly. Before long, as the weeks and years tick by, you’ll find you are speaking on your own, in psalm-like honesty. Some of us even grow silent over the years, as words no longer seem necessary or even possible: cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart).

And when words seem difficult to come by, just sigh. St. Augustine says, This task [of prayer] is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech (Letter 130, to Proba). It may seem a strange thing, but sighing is very relaxing, and much is released from the soul by it. I have often thought of Gregorian Chant as a musical sigh to God, and it brings me great peace. I am blessed to have a cavernous Church and to be able to read and sing Chant there.

So pray. Pray honestly. If words are hard, just sigh or sit quietly. But pray. Watch and wait for the Lord. It’s not work, it’s rest.

There is another old hymn that speaks of the delights of true and honest prayer. It is the old classic, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Note its lyrics and then answer these questions: “Is this how you think of prayer? If not, why not?” What if your prayer were less “rule-bound” and more just time you spent apart from this dreary world and with God? Pray these words and ask for their reality:

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
That calls me from a world of care,
And bids me at my Father’s throne
Make all my wants and wishes known.
In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief,
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare,
By thy return, sweet hour 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!

Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”

Four Teachings on Personal Prayer – A Homily for the 16th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday speaks to us of the priority of personal prayer. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus sent the apostles out two by two to proclaim the Kingdom. Now they return, eager to report their progress and the graces they encountered.

As Jesus listens, He urges them (perhaps because they are so overjoyed) to come away and rest awhile, for they have labored long. In so doing, Jesus also teaches us about prayer. Let’s consider four teachings on prayer that are evident in today’s Gospel.

I. The Practice of Praise-Filled Prayer – As the text opens, the apostles are with Jesus, joyfully recounting all they experienced on their missionary journey. In a similar text in Luke (10:17), the apostles return rejoicing, saying that even demons are subject to them (through Jesus’ name). Thus, their first instinct is joyful gratitude before the Lord.

Is your prayer filled with praise and thanksgiving? Are you grateful to God for all He has done? Do you tell God what is happening in your life and give Him thanks for all He has enabled you to do?

Too many people think of prayer only in relation to petition, but praise is also an essential component. When Jesus began His instruction on prayer, He said, When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name’ (Mat 6:9). In other words, “Father, your name is holy. You are a great God, a wonderful God. You can do all things and I praise you! Thank you, Father; your name is holy, and you are holy.”

Praise the Lord. Thank Him for what He is doing and tell Him everything that you are experiencing. Scripture says that we were made for the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:16). So, praise the Lord in your prayer. How? Take a psalm of praise. Pray or sing the Gloria from Mass. Sing or recite a hymn. No matter how you do it, praise Him!

II. The Peace of Personal Prayer – Jesus invites the apostles to come away by themselves to a quiet place and rest for a while. Most people don’t think of their personal prayer as a privileged invitation from the Lord, nor do they think of it as rest.

Yet, consider that the Lord invites us to come aside and spend personal and private time with Him. Most people would relish personal attention from a famous person. Why not from the Lord? An old song says, “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”

Note the description of this time as “rest.” Most people think of prayer more as a task than as a time of rest. Yet to pray is to rest, to withdraw from this world for a brief time and enjoy the Lord’s presence. Scripture says, For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, “In repentance and rest you will be saved. In quietness and trust is your strength” (Is 30:15).

An old hymn says,

Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
That calls me from a world of care,
And bids me at my Father’s throne
Make all my wants and wishes known.
In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief,
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare,
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!

Learn to think of prayer as quiet time, as rest with the Lord, when He soothes, strengthens, refreshes, and blesses us.

III. The Primacy of Prioritized Prayer – The text says that people were coming in great numbers seeking the attention of the Lord and the apostles; they could not even get a moment to eat!

There is no doubt that the people had critical needs. They needed to be taught, healed, fed, and cared for in many ways. Yet despite this Jesus said, in effect, “We have to get away from all this for a while.” He directed the apostles to go off in the boat to a deserted place.

Indeed, one of the few places they could “get away” was out on the water. There, the crowds could not follow them, and they could be alone and quiet for a short time.

Jesus made prayer a priority. Scripture says of Him, But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). Scripture also speaks of Him rising early to pray (Mark 1:35), praying late into the night (Matt 14:23), praying all night long (Luke 6:12), and praying in the mountains (Matt 14:23) and other deserted places.

Understanding prayer as rest helps us to understand why prayer must be a priority in our lives. If we are going to engage in the work to which God has called us, we need to be replenished and refreshed daily by spending time with Him.

If we were to engage in physical work without ever stopping to rest, we would collapse. The spiritual life has a similar law. Resting with God in prayer fills us with His presence, grace, and strength so that we can be equipped, empowered, and enabled unto the tasks that He has given us.

No one can give or share what he does not have, so if we aren’t praying and experiencing God’s presence, how can we share it? To share grace, we must first receive it. To speak the Word, we must first receive it. To witness to the Lord, we must first know Him.

Jesus often had to hide in order to pray. Sometimes the only quiet place He could find was out on the lake, but He did make time for prayer. He invites the apostles and us to do the same, not only despite the busyness of life, but because of it.

A Brief Story –

A priest friend of mine told me that back in the 1970s he once gave spiritual direction to a religious sister. At that time, it was common for people to say, “My work is my prayer.” When this priest inquired about the good sister’s prayer life she answered, “Oh, I’m too busy to pray, but that’s OK because my work is my prayer; that’s my spirituality.” He replied, “Sister, if you’re not praying, you don’t have a spirituality.” He got her to start praying for one hour a day. Some years later, he ran into her at the airport. By now, she had moved on to become a major superior in her order. “How are you doing, Mother?” he asked. “Oh,” she replied, “I am very busy!” He cringed, but then she added, “I’m so busy these days that I have to spend two hours a day praying!”

Now there’s a smart woman! When we’re being foolish we say, “I’m too busy to pray.” When we’re smart we say, “I’m so busy that I need to pray more.”

Jesus made prayer a priority. Prayer is the rest that strengthens us for the task; it is the refreshment that gives us new vigor and zeal.

IV. The Power of Pious Prayer – The text says that after Jesus spent this time alone with the apostles on the boat, they reached the other shore. Sure enough, the crowd was there waiting for them, but Jesus and the apostles had been refreshed and were now well-rested. Jesus, renewed and refreshed, saw the vast crowd and began to teach them at great length.

Prayer has that effect. In drawing close to God, who is love, we are better equipped to love others. Jesus, though He never lacked love for them, models this renewal for us. The text says that upon seeing the crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them. The Greek word translated as “pity” is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai), which means “to be moved with compassion.” The word “pity” often carries with it a condescending tone, but what happens here is that Jesus sees them, loves them, and has compassion for their state. The religious leaders in Jerusalem have largely abandoned them, considering them “the great unwashed,” but Jesus loves them and teaches them at great length.

It often takes many years and a lot of prayer to equip our hearts in this way. One of the signs that grace and prayer are having their effect is that our love for others, even for the multitudes, grows deeper, more compassionate, more patient, and more merciful. This takes great prayer and long hours of sitting at the Lord’s feet learning from Him.

Here is the power that prayer bestows: we are more fully equipped for our mission, more zealous, and more loving. The rest afforded by prayer rejuvenates our better nature and helps it to grow.

So, here are four teachings on prayer. Jesus found time to pray; He made it a priority. How about you?

The Punishment of Complete Loss and What It Says to Us

The Burning of Jerusalem, Circle of Juan de la Corte

In the Office of Readings, we are currently reading from the prophet Ezekiel. Sunday’s reading warns of the possibility that moral conditions in the world can get so awful, even among the people of God, that He must take the strongest and most severe of measures.

Ezekiel experienced the coming disaster upon Israel very personally as a last warning to the people.

Thus the word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, by a sudden blow I am taking away from you the delight of your eyes …. That evening my wife died (Ez 24:15, 17).

Ezekiel wrote in the period just before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. The loss of his wife was a portent of the coming disaster. God instructed Ezekiel not to mourn, but to turn to the people and say,

Thus the word of the Lord came to me: Say to the house of Israel: Thus says the Lord God: I will now desecrate my sanctuary, the stronghold of your pride, the delight of your eyes, the desire of your soul. The sons and daughters you left behind shall fall by the sword. Ezekiel shall be a sign for you: all that he did you shall do when it happens. … you shall rot away because of your sins and groan one to another.

As for you, son of man (Ezekiel) truly, on the day I take away from them their bulwark, their glorious joy, the delight of their eyes, the desire of their soul, and the pride of their hearts, their sons and daughters …. Thus you shall be a sign to them, and they shall know that I am the Lord (Ezekiel 24, selected verses).

The terrible and tragic moment for Judah came in 587 B.C. The Babylonians utterly destroyed Jerusalem. The Temple was burned and the Ark of the Covenant was lost, never again to be found (until its fulfillment in the Blessed Mother Mary). One could not imagine a more unlikely or complete destruction. Why would God allow His glorious Temple to fall at the hands of an unbelieving nation?

But God is not egocentric. He does not need buildings or holy cities to show His power. His most central work is to fashion a holy people and to draw each of us to holiness.

The terrible state of affairs of ancient Israel and Judah is well documented by the prophets. God’s own people had become depraved in many ways. There was idolatry, injustice, promiscuity, and a tendency to imitate the nations around them. Further they had become incorrigible. God often described them has having necks of iron and foreheads of brass. He called them a rebellious house. On top of all this, they made the presumption that God would never destroy His own temple or allow Jerusalem to fall.

There comes a time when warnings and minor punishments are no longer effective; only the most severe and widespread of losses will purge the evil. Surely this is evident in the smoking ruins of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Those who survived were taken to live in exile.

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps (Ps 137:1-2).

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that such a terrible event could only occur in the ancient world. We must consider that our condition can become so debased, so corrupted, that the only solution is the most severe of punishments, one so onerous that we cannot possibly return to our former ways, one that levels the very sources of our pride and sin.

Today, we kill shocking numbers of children in the womb; no amount of preaching or teaching of medical truth seems capable of ending this shedding of innocent blood. Our families are collapsing; we are suffering the ravages of our sexual sins. In our greed we cannot seem to control our spending or ever say no to ourselves. We are saddling future generations with insurmountable debt. No matter the warnings, we cannot or will not stop. There is desperate confusion and silence even in the Church, where one would hope for clarity and words of sanity. Corruptio optimi pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst thing). Believers are silent, weak, and divided, while the wicked and secular are fierce, committed, and focused.

All the while, in our affluence, we cannot imagine that a crushing end might come. Yet God said to the ancient, affluent city of Laodicea,

You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see (Revelation 3:17-18).

It becomes hard to see how God might bring us to conversion without the severest of blows.

Nevertheless, do not wish for this. Continue to pray for conversion! The alternative is almost too awful to imagine. Most of us are too comfortable to endure what might come. Saints, sinners, and everyone in between will suffer. Ezekiel was the first to suffer in the collapse of his times, even though he was one who tried to listen and warn.

The message of this week’s meditation in the Office of Readings is clear: Pray, pray, pray. Be sober that God will not hesitate to inflict severe blows if necessary, so that He might at least save some, a remnant.