July 29, 2019
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on July 28, 2019 at St. Austin Parish and the University Catholic Center in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:12-14; and Luke 11:1-13.
Luke is the gospel of the Holy Spirit, the gospel of history, the gospel of social justice, and the gospel of women. Today, we focus on it also being the gospel of prayer. We will return to Luke’s theme of prayer for three weeks in October.
The middle portion of today’s gospel passage bothers a lot of people. It talks about the grumpy neighbor we wake in the middle of the night to ask for bread for unexpected guests. Jesus says, “if he does not get up to give [you] the loaves because of [your] friendship, he will get up to give [you] whatever [you] need because of [your] persistence.” Is God like a grumpy neighbor? No! That’s not the point of Jesus’ analogy! The point is that we should be persistent in our prayer.
We continue to ask, to seek, and to knock. Let us thank our Father in heaven for lavishly fulfilling our requests!
Our readings are inviting us to reflect on being persistent in prayer. But today, we’ll simply talk about prayer, with just a few thoughts on persistence near the end. We’ll cover persistence in detail the weekend of October 20.
In Christianity, we talk about prayer a lot, but our public discussion seems to revolve around three subtopics: (1) Prayer is really important. (2) You should pray more than you currently do. (3) I have a specific way of praying that works for me, so you should pray the same way.
But it seems as if we rarely talk about why we should pray, or how to pray… which is an absolute shame, since the Church has so much to offer us on the nature of prayer and the diversity of prayer traditions. So, let’s get back to basics!
First of all, why do we pray? Prayer, first and foremost, is an acknowledgement of God. Prayer changes us and our relationship with God. By opening ourselves up to the presence of the Divine, we have the potential to get in touch with a greater reality. In these moments of heightened awareness, we may receive insights to better understand our current circumstances, other possibilities available to us, our relationship with God, and what God has in mind for us.
Somehow, I received a lightning-bolt call to consider the priesthood when I was twenty-seven years old, but I didn’t learn much about praying until I was thirty. Here are the five main things I’ve learned about prayer in the past fifteen years:
- Prayer is not necessarily complicated. It can sometimes be very simple. The founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker, said that with practice, prayer can become as easy as breathing.
- Prayer is conversation with God. That means that we can’t do all the talking. We need to give God – be it the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit – a chance to speak, even if we’re easily distracted. If our mind wanders, we just need to gently bring ourselves back to the present moment. And like in any other loving relationship, there will be moments when we’re worried that God isn’t listening to us. But if keep praying, we’ll work through this with God.
- The key to prayer is showing up. As Woody Allen once said, “Showing up is eighty percent of my life.” I don’t usually look to Woody Allen for spiritual advice, but he’s onto something here: in prayer, I think “showing up” is at least ninety-five percent of the work.
- When we pray, we need to be authentic. I’ve met a lot of people who only present “edited” versions of themselves to God. They don’t want to tell God about their anger, sadness, or loneliness. Or they don’t want to burden God with their sins or concerns. Don’t be so arrogant to think that your problems are too small for God! We need to offer God the whole of who we are, warts and all.
- As long as we show up, there’s really only one way to “mess up” prayer. The one thing that can sabotage our prayer time is to start evaluating how well we’re praying. Once we start evaluating, we’re no longer praying. Prayer is a relationship with God, and we usually don’t evaluate our other relationships this way, do we?
Matthew Kelly, a well-known Catholic motivational speaker, says that there are two keys to having an ongoing prayer life. The first is to have a routine: show up to pray at the same time every day, a time that works easily with our schedule and our energy level. The second is to “have a routine within the routine.” That is, when we show up to pray, we need to have a few prayer techniques to choose from.
And this, I think, is where we get to the crux of the problem: a lot of us don’t have much of a routine within our prayer routine. So, what should we do? We need to keep learning about prayer and spirituality. I’m always trying to learn new ways to pray. Remember that first rule of prayer: Prayer is not necessarily complicated. This isn’t supposed to be burdensome, and it’s not supposed to feel like a research project!
There are so many ways to pray. One of the most basic things is to remember that there are four major categories of prayer:
- Adoration – remembering that God is God and we are not
- Contrition – expressing sorrow to God for our failings
- Thanksgiving for all the good things God has given us
- Supplication – asking God for the things we need or desire
Here’s some of the things I’ve done in the past 15 years to keeping learning about prayer and spirituality. I’ve had a variety of spiritual directors over the past fifteen years: a Jesuit, a Trinitarian, a Franciscan, an Episcopalian, and a Methodist. I’ve learned about praying with Scripture and the Ignatian examen. I’ve participated in groups devoted to centering prayer, lectio divina, the rosary, and Eucharistic exposition. I’ve taken workshops on writing poetry, doing yoga, and drawing mandalas. I’ve observed one of the country’s best liturgical choreographers. I’ve studied the spiritualities of several Paulist patron saints, especially Francis de Sales. I read books from a variety of spiritual traditions. I leave for my annual retreat tomorrow, and I’m taking three new books with me, along with my trusty prayer journal.
There are lots of ways to keep learning about new ways to pray, but once again, prayer is not necessarily as complicated or as intellectual as a Ph.D. dissertation. Abraham’s long, pointed exchange with God is a great model of how simple and profound prayer can sometimes be.
Some people think that we need to wait for divine inspiration to strike us before we pray. If I waited to experience the Holy Spirit before I started praying, I would have missed a lot of profound encounters with the Spirit. Perhaps the best way to think of it is this: prayer is a discipline, similar to exercise. We become better at prayer the same way musicians get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice!
Or, as the great science fiction writer, Octavia Butler, advised aspiring authors: “First, forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
2. A few of my many favorite spiritual books:
- God and You: Prayer As a Personal Relationship, by William A. Barry, SJ
- A Circle of Quiet, by Madeleine l’Engle
- The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham
- The Holy Longing, by Ronald Rolheiser, OMI
- A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, by Wayne Muller
- Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, by Joan Chittester, OSB
- Living Simply In an Anxious World, by Robert J. Wicks
- The Wounded Healer, by Henri Nouwen
- A Maryknoll Book of Inspiration: Readings for Every Day of the Year, edited by Michael Leach and Doris Goodnough
3. Two recommended books on spirituality for children: