October 21, 2019
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on October 20, 2019 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Exodus 17:8-13; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:2; and Luke 18:1-8.
Last week, I attended the national convention of Tau Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society, for the first time in over a decade. It was a wonderful time, and I was quick to tell my colleagues that some definite improvements had been made to the convention over the past fifteen years.
I spoke too soon. In the evening on the second day, they once again told Jim Froula’s tortuously long, not-funny joke about a duck and a grocery store. 1 The point of the joke was about persistence. As one convention delegate said fifteen years ago, the real persistence was that Jim would tell that joke year after year, hoping to finally get a laugh.
Today, all three of our readings deal with something more noble than persistence: perseverance. Persistence is sometimes just the repeating of an annoying habit, but perseverance is the pursuit of goal, even when there seems no way forward. Exodus tells of how Moses was able to keep his arms raised all day long during an important battle. Second Timothy urges us to remain faithful to what we believe. In our gospel, Jesus says that if perseverance can persuade others to do as we desire, our perseverance in prayer will surely have great rewards.
Let us be thankful that God perseveres in showing us mercy!
The Paulist Fathers have a lot of patron saints. With the canonization of John Henry Newman last weekend, we now have fifteen of them, four of which we’ve celebrated in the past 10 days. 2 However, I’d like to talk about a different one today: St. John of the Cross, a Spanish Carmelite mystic of the 16th century whose writings deeply inspired Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulists.
John’s best-known work is one of the most famous poems in the Spanish, which we’ve titled in English “The Dark Night of the Soul.” It is only eight stanzas of five lines each, but it is profound. In fact, half of all John’s known writings are explanations of the poem: The Ascent of Mount Carmel clocks in at roughly 240 pages; The Dark Night is only about 100 pages, but John never finished writing that treatise. John of the Cross is one of only of 36 people who has been named a “Doctor” of the Church, someone who has made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine. 3 Clearly, the Church values the wisdom of this poem!
While it has become customary to use the phrase “the dark night of the soul” to describe any challenge in our lives, John is speaking of specific challenges in the spiritual life. I am no expert on Carmelite spirituality, and I haven’t even read The Ascent of Mount Carmel, but as you already know, that won’t stop me from preaching about it!
Here’s how I explain it to people who come to my office, lamenting that nothing seems to happen when they pray: Prayer is conversation with God, and John of the Cross would argue that what you’re going through is actually… progress on the spiritual journey. It’s like a relationship with a significant other.
On that first or second date, you’re constantly worried: Does she like me? Is he interested in me? Why hasn’t she made eye contac t in the last 15 seconds? Should I say something funny? 4 Should I squeeze his hand? Am I talking too much?
But eventually, in your relationship with the other person, you hopefully reach a point where the two of you can be in the same room for hours, perhaps engaged in different activities, without saying much of anything to the other person, confident that the other person loves you. At the heart of it, I think the point of the Dark Night of the Soul is that the darkness is an opportunity for growth – God realizes that you don’t need those “warm fuzzies” of constant reassurance, so the two of you can build a deeper, more substantial relationship. You don’t need to constantly search for signs. You can trust that God is still with you.
From the writing of other saints, such as Mother Teresa of Kolkata, we know that even the holiest people can experience extended “dark nights” in their spiritual journeys. In fact, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, John of the Cross argues that since God is completely unknowable, the entire spiritual journey of our soul to attain mystical union with God is shrouded in darkness.
So, when we find ourselves experiencing darkness on our spiritual journey, let us take heart. It doesn’t mean that we’re doing anything wrong. Let us continue, as Jesus invites us in today’s parable, to persevere in our prayer.
This is not the first time in Luke that Jesus instructs us to persevere. Seven chapters ago, he asked, “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… 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?” Likewise, we could paraphrase today’s gospel: “If a corrupt judge, who has no regard for justice, rules in favor of a persevering widow, how much more will the Father render justice to those who cry out to him?”
What does perseverance in prayer look like, in practical terms? Remember, Luke says that Jesus told this parable to teach the disciples “to pray always without becoming weary.” What does it mean, to “pray always”? If we prayed twenty-three-and-a-half hours a day, would we be falling short of what Jesus asked of us? There are many things that we need to do every day: to eat, to sleep, and to exercise, to name a few. Surely, God wants us to do those things. He probably doesn’t have a problem with us working, studying, and caring for our family and friends, either! Perhaps we need to broaden our idea of what we consider to be “prayer.”
St. Francis of Assisi supposedly said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” G. K. Chesterson wrote, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the play and the opera, and grace before the concert and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing; and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” Let us pray at all times; if necessary, let us use words.
John of the Cross teaches us that perseverance in prayer will eventually bring us heavenly bliss. As he wrote:
One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
—ah, the sheer grace! —
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
In darkness and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised
—ah, the sheer grace! —
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.
On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.
This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
—him I knew so well—
there in a place where no one appeared.
O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.
When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.
I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
- It’s not a very funny joke, but if you really want to endure it, here it is. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you! ↩
- John XXIII (October 11), John Henry Newman (October 13), Teresa of Avila (October 15), and Isaac Jogues (October 19). ↩
- Five of the fifteen Paulist patrons are considered doctors of the Church. In addition to John of the Cross, they are Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus Liguori, Francis de Sales, and Teresa of Avila. ↩
- No! Don’t tell the duck joke! ↩