On the Power of One Small Prayer

Praying the rosary today I marveled once again at the Fatima prayer, which is recited at the end of each decade:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy!

I have often wondered how God reacts to a prayer like this. I am awed by the power of this simple prayer, even if said in a distracted way. God is surely pleased that we ask for the salvation of souls and that we have in mind especially those who are most in need, most lost, most wayward.

How many times have we prayed this in the rosary and what have been its effects?It is astonishing and humbling to consider this. Perhaps in Heaven we will be greeted by grateful souls who will tell us that at a certain time on a particular date God heard our prayer for lost souls and applied it to them! We, too, will come to know what a difference the prayers of others made for us.

In recent years during confessions, I often ask the penitent to offer an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” for that soul (known only to God) who is now most in need of His grace and mercy. God knows not only who is in most need of His mercy but also who is opento receiving that mercy. It is a beautiful thought to engage the battle for that soul and to consider that our prayer may be the prove to be the tipping point. God knows how to coordinate all this; we do not. But He asks us to join Him in this work and to pray for the conversion of sinners and the consolation of suffering. In so doing we engage the battle for souls, including our own.

Just a brief consideration of the value of one small prayer that reaches someone in most need of God’s mercy.

A Plea From Moses for Mercy Is Needed for Us As Well.

The first reading from Thursday’s Mass (of the 4thWeek of Lent) features the golden calf incident. God, likely trying to draw mercy from Moses, threatens to destroy the people for their infidelity. But as the text says,

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? …Let your blazing wrath die down; relent in punishing your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky… (EX 32:7-14)

The Responsorial Psalm (106) for Thursday summarizes things well.

Our fathers made a calf in Horeb
and adored a molten image;
They exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bullock.

 They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
Wondrous deeds in the land of Ham,
terrible things at the Red Sea.

 Then he spoke of exterminating them,
but Moses, his chosen one,
Withstood him in the breach
to turn back his destructive wrath.

And all this, in our current crisis inspires also a model for prayer. I want to be clear that I am not concluding that God is directly punishing us, but he has permitted this. And, as we know, the people of Bible used times like these to repent and call on God. As I prayed these readings today at a private Mass the following prayerful thoughts came to mind:

Lord God we are in a great crisis, a worldwide crisis. I am going to guess we probably had this coming. For, we have collectively forgotten you, we have been ungrateful and done every sort of wicked deed. We have been greedy, wasteful, worldly, unchaste, unfaithful to marriage and family life, and have aborted our own children by the tens of millions. Yes Lord we have sinned and been stubbornly unrepentant. But Lord, I am, like Moses, asking your mercy. Even though we may not deserve it, I ask it anyway. Please Lord spare us from this disease and the economic collapse that will cause additional lives and harm. A miracle Lord, yes, we need a miracle. Please Lord, as you once did for King David and stopped the pestilence of that day at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, please do this now for us. Save us also from our excessive fears which have so seized many of us. For the sake of Christ’s sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world;  Have mercy.

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