Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Just Speak...Then Listen

   Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time    


On Prayer 
Part II:  How to Pray

If you’ve ever wondered about the value of Catholic education,
this story alone should convince you…

Prayer is a regular part of the school day
for the children down at Holy Family,
and that starts even at the end of the hall—in the pre-K.
There, our youngest students are taught to pray
in a most ingenious way.
Sure, they memorize the words of our traditional Catholic prayers
and can belt them out with gusto.
But their teacher also tells them that, when they pray,
they should close their eyes real tight
and picture Jesus sitting right beside them
with his arm wrapped around their shoulder.
And the kids take it very seriously.
Last year, one little boy went home
and, when it came time to say his prayers before bed,
told his mother she’d have to move:
she was sitting in Jesus’ spot!

Last week, Fr. Tom and I began our three-part series on prayer
with the preliminaries:
But once we’ve made our decision and decided to pray,
once we’ve cleared the way, setting aside a time and place,
making prayer a real priority in our day,
what are we supposed to do?
And so this week, we’re looking at how to pray.

To be honest: the lesson most of us really need
is the same one given those four-year-olds at Holy Family.

About a year ago, I guess,
a parishioner came to me seeking some advice.
He heard us talking about the Year of Faith,
and the message was hitting home.
He regularly came to Mass every Sunday,
but that was about the extent of his Catholic life.
It seems he’d spent enough time in the Pharisee’s spot,
justifying himself and his actions,
and determined it was time to follow the tax collector’s lead:
humbly throwing himself on the mercy of God.
So he returned to confession after a long time away.
He began to feel the need to pray
beyond the time he spent at Mass.
I suggested that he start with the Rosary,
and he took me up on it.
But after awhile,
he sensed that he ought to take things deeper still.
Based on our discussion, here’s what he did:
            I went to the chapel at St. Joseph’s—he told me
            since I knew it’d be quiet there,
            and I pulled up a chair real close to the tabernacle.
            And I just started to talk to Jesus like you said, Fr. Joe.
            I talked about my thoughts and feelings,
            made apologies and requests.
            I unloaded everything, and was completely honest.
            I must have talked straight for 15 minutes.
            And then—since you said I should also listen—
            I stayed real quiet for five minutes or so.
            I tried not to focus on anything in particular.
            That’s when I heard a voice.
            It sounded like my own inner voice,
            but it was saying something
            I hadn’t at all been thinking about.
            It said, “If you’re sitting here
            whispering to a loaf of bread,
            then you’re a crazy person!”
            Jesus had never before revealed himself directly to me,
            and now he was doing so with a sense of humor—
            which I really appreciate.
            He wanted me to know, Father, that he’s really there.
            What a difference it made!
            Talking to Jesus personally
            has made grace more obvious to me.
            I can feel God giving me the help I need,
            since I don’t have the willpower on my own.
            And it has improved my sense of self-worth.
            I must be worth something for my Savior to speak to me!
            At first, speaking personally to Jesus
            was awkward—really awkward!
            But it gets easier and more natural.
            Now, I speak to Jesus every morning after my Rosary
            and every evening before bed.
            I don’t always get such a clear response.
            But because he’s already let me know
            that he’s there and that he’s listening,
            it doesn’t matter.
            I have someone to go to who will always be there.
            That’s a huge comfort.

At first, this notion of prayer can seem a bit simplistic, even naïve.
Is it really that easy?  Just a matter of talking and listening?
But none other than St. Teresa of Avila,
a Doctor of the Church noted for her writings on prayer, says:
            Prayer in my opinion is nothing else
            than a close sharing between friends;
            it means taking time frequently to be alone with him
            who we know loves us.

Prayer is all about working on a relationship.
It’s an ongoing conversation,
and the conversation will undoubtedly deepen
as we get more familiar with each other over time.
Think of it this way:
the decision to pray is like “making a date” with God.
Once we know when and where we plan to meet,
we need to consider what we’re going to talk about.
Traditional prayers said from memory
are like the standard formulas we use for polite conversation
with someone we’ve just met:
“Hello.  How are you?”  “Oh, I’m fine.  Do you come here often?”
But a relationship can’t get very far
if the conversation stops there!
And so we need to open up and be honest.
We mustn’t be hollow and puffed with pride, like the Pharisee,
as if we need to impress God;
instead, we must be genuine and straightforward—
like the tax collector—
even when the truth isn’t so pretty.
Note that the tax collector’s words are very few;
it’s not their number, but their sincerity, that counts.
There are times—
especially when we’re under stress, or tired, or in doubt—
when we can’t find the words with which to pray,
and so we turn to traditional prayers we first memorized as children.
But there are also times when our own words
are really the only appropriate ones.
And then there are times when any words at all
will only get in the way.
Much better—of course—for our heart to be without words
than for our words to be without heart.  (cf. J. Bunyan)

As Jesus reminded us and all his disciples last Sunday,
we need to pray, to persevere in prayer,
to “pray always without becoming weary.”
It’s not a matter of keeping the rules,
but of deepening a relationship.
It’s not about checking something off the list,
but about checking in with your nearest and dearest friend.
So slide over on the bed.
Move that chair closer to the tabernacle.
Jesus is real and very near.
Open your heart.  Speak with humility. 
And then…be sure to listen.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


A special series starting this week...and a bonus feature: you can even listen to me preach...

   Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time    


On Prayer 
Part I:  Preparing to Pray

Friday night, I went to a friend’s birthday party.
Our hosts have a two-year-old son—Liam—
who provided us with constant entertainment:
he sings; he dances; he tells jokes.
It doesn’t hurt, of course,
that with a head covered in blond curls,
he’s cute as a button.
But beyond his showmanship,
I was just as enthralled to watch how this tike
interacts with his dad.
“Dad, come play with me!” (That request was frequent.)
“Dad, I need to blow my nose!”
“No, Dad, I’m not tired!”
Liam never tired of letting his father know
just what was on his young mind.
And Liam’s father never tired of hearing from his son.
The boy had complete trust in making his every request.
He might not always get what he wants,
but he has faith that whatever he’s going to get
is going to be good.

Over the past few months,
our parish Pastoral Council has been reading a book together
and discussing a chapter or two
at the beginning of each meeting.
One of the very first chapters was on prayer,
and a lively conversation ensued.
It was a common concern that prayer
is something we Catholics often take for granted.
We know we’re supposed to do it,
but many of us aren’t exactly sure how…
…and we worry about getting it wrong.
As a result, the Council asked if Fr. Tom and I
might do a little focused preaching on prayer.
And so this Sunday,
we’re starting a three-part series on the subject:
            I. Preparing to Pray;
            II. How to Pray; and
            III. Why We Pray.

Jesus teaches us this Sunday
about the necessity “to pray always without becoming weary.”
The parable he tells is equally a lesson about the fact
that God never becomes weary of our prayers.
If an unjust judge will eventually do what’s right
in favor of an annoying widow,
how much more our Father in heaven—
in a way surpassing even Liam’s very attentive dad—
must love us, and want what is best for us,
and delight in hearing from us over and over and over again!

St. John Vianney put it so well:
“Our dear God loves to be bothered.”

For us grown-ups who’ve lost much of our childlike spontaneity,
“to pray always without becoming weary”
isn’t our natural inclination,
so a little discipline is needed.
When it comes to preparing to pray—
to setting the stage to regularly bother God—
I can think of five simple steps that I hope you’ll find helpful.

Step 1: Make a decision.
“To pray always without becoming weary”
requires a commitment.
The vast majority of Catholics pray pretty sporadically—
when the mood hits or when crisis strikes.
But is it enough to pray just when you feel like praying?
“The most important part of praying correctly 
is doing it regularly.…
The soul lives on prayer.”  (R. Guardini)
And experience has proven the sad truth:
“Someone who does not pray regularly
will soon not pray at all.”  (YouCat #499)
Commit yourself to praying every day—
particularly, at the start of the day,
when your mind is still clear
and to get things off on the right foot.
Make a decision.

Step 2: Be faithful.
Getting in a regular habit of prayer takes a little work.
Beginners often get distracted or discouraged.
Usually, their biggest mistake is aiming too high.
Start small.
Set a manageable goal, and build up from there.
And even though you struggle,
even though it sometimes seems like it doesn’t help,
be patient and stick with it.
Remember: “Prayer is not a microwave. 
Prayer is a crock-pot.”  (R. Guarendi)
Make a decision.  Be faithful.

Step 3: Make time.
If prayer is going to be a daily practice,
then we have to make it a real priority.
From the very beginning,
Christians have prayed at set moments during the day—
in the morning, before bed, at meals.
Prayer asks us to schedule a regular time—
and it ought to be truly valuable time, not just “spare” time.
We don’t find time but make time to pray.
“But I’m so busy, Father!”
I know.
Here’s what St. Francis de Sales had to say to that objection:
“Each Christian needs half an hour of prayer each day,
except when we are busy; then we need an hour.”
Keep in mind that the more generous you are toward God,
the more generous you’ll find 
that God is with you. (cf. St. Ignatius of Loyola)
Make a decision.  Be faithful.  Make time.

Step 4: Have a plan.
Once you have some quality time set aside—
even if it’s only five or ten minutes to start—
you need to know what you’re going to do with it.
So find the right place—in your home, outdoors, in church.

Then consider your posture: 
standing, sitting, walking, kneeling.
And develop a routine for your prayer—
a set pattern, a ritual—
to which you return again each day.
Your prayer might take the form of daily Mass or the Rosary;
maybe it’ll be reading from the Bible or a devotional book.
It will probably take some trial and error, 
but try different things until you find one that fits.
Just keep trying, and don’t give up.
Make a decision.  Be faithful.  Make time.  Have a plan.

Step 5: Let God speak.
Part of our plan must always be to leave some room for silence.
We need to speak up when we pray,
but we also need to listen.
Our God is not distant.
Rather, God longs to be our personal friend, guide, and advisor.
Unlike a human parent,
our heavenly Father can give each and every one of us
his complete and undivided attention.
God is keenly interested in you and all that’s going on in your life.
So be listening for his voice.
Have faith that he only wants what is best for you,
and believe that discovering his will and then doing it
is the only real path to happiness.
The true value of praying “always without becoming weary”
is not that God will eventually hear us,
but that we will finally hear God.  (cf. W. McGill)
Make a decision.  Be faithful.  Make time.  
Have a plan.  Let God speak.

In the course of Friday’s birthday party,
a plate of food was prepared for little Liam.
After he was given his place at the table,
all he did was stare at it.
“You need to eat, Liam,” said his mom.
“But we no pray,” he answered.
So we all stopped and together made the Sign of the Cross.
But before we could say, “Bless us, O Lord…”
Liam added, “And turn off the music!”
Then we prayed, Liam shouted, “Amen!”
and dug into his dinner.
Even at two-years-old, Liam gets it!
A decision had been made and he was faithful to it;
time was set aside and he had a plan for it;
he even recognized the need for some silence.

Since Liam can do it, so can—so must—we!

Is prayer enough? Is it the whole of the Christian life?
Of course not.
But it is essential.
And—really—it’s where it all begins.

Prepare to regularly bother your heavenly Father.
Pray without becoming weary,
for God never wearies of hearing from you.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Down & Up

Somehow I got through three Masses with my yo-yo working (pretty well) every time...

   Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time    

They told us more than once in the seminary
that we shouldn’t use props when we’re preaching.
I’m about to prove just why they told us that…

A couple of Christmases ago,
a friend gave me this beautiful, 
handcrafted yo-yo.
I could never really get the hang 
of a yo-yo as a kid,
but having this one in my office
has given me the chance 
to practice every once and awhile.
As you can see…
...I’ve gotten only slightly better!

It’s the repeated motion of the yo-yo—
down and then back up again—
which captures my notice this Sunday.
Because that continual movement—
down and up, down and up—
is, if you stop to think about it,
a pattern we find played out here in the Mass.

The first part of the Mass—the Liturgy of the Word—
focuses our attention on the Scriptures:
listening to them, reflecting on them, responding to them.
It’s the second part of the Mass—the Liturgy of the Eucharist—
that I’d like you to consider more closely this morning.
And that funny Greek word, Eucharist, is at the heart of it all.
“Eucharist” means “to give thanks”—
a concept certainly on the Church’s mind this Sunday
as we hear the story of the ten cleansed lepers.
But thanksgiving ought to be on our mind
every time we gather before the Lord’s altar:
            For on the night he was betrayed,
            he himself took bread, and giving thanks
            In a similar way, when supper was ended,
            he took the chalice, and, giving you thanks
From the moment he first instituted this great Sacrament,
Jesus intended for gratitude to be at its very heart…
…and yet how often that reality escapes our notice.

Follow with me now, if you will,
the down and up, back and forth movement
that’s so familiar that we usually miss it.

Prior to Mass, 
gifts of bread and wine are prepared:
gifts representing all that we hope to offer to God,
but which are first gifts we have received.
Before they can be the work of human hands,
they are the fruit of the earth 
and fruit of the vine—
gifts come down 
from the Lord God of all creation.
These gifts bestowed upon us
are then presented at the altar 
and offered up to God.
But with God’s blessing 
and by the Holy Spirit’s power,
they come back down to us again—
transformed to the very core of their substance
into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Next, notice what the priest does
at the very end of the Eucharistic Prayer:
he lifts up Christ’s Body and Blood—
just as they were on the Cross—
to offer them anew to the Father 
for the world’s salvation.
And what does the Father do?
He rains them down 
as he did the manna in the desert,
giving them to his children as food.
This Communion with Christ strengthens us
to live throughout the coming week:
preparing us to receive new blessings,
opening us to experience daily miracles,
that we might return here
when the Lord’s Day comes around again
and begin the process once more.

Graces flowing from God down to us,
and gratitude raised from us up to God:
that’s the essential pattern of the Mass;
that’s the essential pattern of the entire Christian life;
that’s why our central act of worship
is called “Eucharist,” “thanksgiving”;
that’s why a medieval mystic could say,
“If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’
it will suffice.”  (Meister Eckhard)

I have my doubts that it was on Pope Benedict XVI’s mind
when he scheduled this ongoing Year of Faith
that it would end just a few days ahead
of our American celebration of Thanksgiving Day.
But their proximity is instructive:
faith and gratitude go hand in hand.
To give thanks is to profess our faith that God exists—
after all, we’re not thanking thin air.
But to give thanks is also to profess our faith
that this God is an active part of our lives—
not secluded off in the heights of heaven,
but intimately involved with us on earth below
as he provides for our every need.

And so we can see at work in that lone Samaritan leper
the transforming power of gratitude.
What’s at stake is so much more
than a simple matter of good manners!
It’s a matter of taking the Lord’s gift of healing deeper
by not taking it for granted.
(Maybe, like Naaman several centuries before,
being an outsider, an outcast—even an enemy—
helped him in this department.)
Jesus’ gesture of compassion cleared up the sores on his skin;
but taking the time to return and give thanks,
the Samaritan opened the door
which allowed the Lord to get beneath the surface
and go so far as to change his heart.
His act of thanksgiving was an act of faith…
…and it had the power to save his soul.

Down and up, down and up.
Unlike with my yo-yo,
the more consistent we are with this movement on a spiritual level,
then the shorter the distance gets between the two.
But—just like my yo-yo—
when the pattern gets off course and stuck at the bottom,
the whole cycle comes to a halt.

In this and every Mass,
and countless moments in between,
let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is truly right and just,
our duty…and our salvation!