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.

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