Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C

Caponi for Homilies.jpg

Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Exodus 17:8-13
Psalm 121:1-8
2 Tim 3:14-4:2
Luke 18:1-8

Persistence: What a curious quality to attach to prayer. Why do we need to be persistent?

Does God need to be reminded of what we need? Does He forget what He has promised?

Does our heavenly Father have selective hearing, as so many earthly fathers do? As a
teenager, sometimes I would go to speak to my father while he was reading the newspaper after dinner. He would look up, stare at me, even nod, but five minutes later have no recollection of what I had said. Yet, if I whispered a request to my mother to use the car, he would suddenly yell from two floors away, “Don’t let him have it, Marge!”

This explanation doesn’t work. Jesus tells us, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). We don’t tell God what we need to inform Him of something He doesn’t know, and His hearing is perfect.

Some of the oddness of Jesus’ command arises from the fact that he gives us so little advice on how to pray. We are told to pray in groups (“Our Father”), and to pray alone, in our rooms, with the doors closed. Jesus tells us to ask for whatever we need, and not to think we have to use a lot of words. But there is little else. Christ offers no directives about posture, breathing, or the best time of day. Should we sing? Should we kneel? Should our eyes be open or closed? Christ says nothing about these questions.

How odd, then, that out of all the advice Jesus might give, he makes a point of stressing that we must pray persistently. Why?

We know that a common challenge to good prayer is fatigue, mental or physical. Jesus tell us to pray without becoming weary; but often, we are weary even before we begin. We are not angels. Praise is not our sole occupation, nor spirit our complete substance. We have work to do. Few of us get all the sleep we need. If we are worn out, any form of mental concentration is almost impossible. God knows our situation, and presents us today with the marvelous image of Moses, who wants to go on praying but is just too tired. So Aaron and Hur prop him up. We, too, come to Church to be propped up in our weakness, to be supported by prayers we know by heart and rituals we have followed from our earliest days. Here, we join pew upon pew of fellow, weary Christians: exhausted mothers and worried fathers, wives and husbands and sons and daughters exhausted by a week of caring for the sick, men and women already wondering how the weekend could be going by so quickly, and how they will attend to all the errands they must do and fit in the relaxation they would like to have.

Sometimes, the best gift we can offer other Christians is showing up to give God thanks, even when we need a nap.

But more often, the chief problem is not fatigue, but distraction. C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist and author of the Chronicles of Narnia, confessed to just this situation in his own prayer life: “Prayer is irksome. An excuse to limit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us” (Letters to Malcolm, XXI).

Everywhere we look, things compete to catch our attention. Commercials and advertisements and music videos and movie previews run by at dizzying speeds, with bursts of fast music and flashes of bright color, instantly succeeded by the next competitor. Computers blaze and video games sparkle, and there is hardly a place to go to find silence, to escape the drone of bad music playing loudly, and the throb of silly voices masquerading as conversation, news, and entertainment.

And then we come to prayer. We seek to raise our hearts to God, to give Him thanks, to attend to what He wishes to say. And nothing happens. Prayer can be positively aggravating, in the way that a blackout aggravates us. When the power goes out, when batteries are depleted, we get antsy, then annoyed, then aggravated. There is work to be done, but we can’t get to it; there is entertainment to be had, but nothing to power it. We become bored. We begin to think about things we’d rather not.

So it is with prayer. God keeps us waiting, and soon we are bored. And that, perhaps, is the real pain, the real irksomeness of prayer. The Lord may be beside us at our right hand, but talking to Him is often excruciatingly tedious. He doesn’t always answer right away, and waiting for Him to speak, keeping ourselves silent, quickly becomes frustrating. Yes, Jesus tells us God is not slow to answer; but if you are as impatient and easily distracted as I am, even a brief period of waiting feels like a chore, and on some days, even a waste of time.

When He does speak, God has a tendency to remind us of the poor, the lonely, the sick, our need to get to confession, and our duty to forgive. The many distractions of daily life shield us from those unpleasant reminders and commands.

And so Jesus commands persistence. He says, “Pray like someone trying to get mercy from a stone. Pray like a widow who has to batter down a door to get justice.” It is a hard command, but merciful as well. Christ does not insist that we feel happiness, or exhilaration, or ecstasy while we pray. He doesn’t promise warmth and contentment, sweetness and satisfaction. With great good sense, Jesus doesn’t attach any emotions to Christian prayer. He doesn’t command us to feel anything in particular. He commands us to pray, and to keep praying. He doesn’t insist that prayer affect us like a sunset or a symphony or sweet ice cream, charming us or overwhelming us or satisfying us. He doesn’t say, “Pray until it feels good.” He who was tempted by Satan in the desert, and who prayed to the point of bleeding in Gethsemane, doesn’t insist we feel uplifted, transformed, or holy. He commands one thing: Keep at it.

Because prayer is like our muscle and bone: If we wait to use our arms and legs until we need to run from danger, we won’t get very far.

Because prayer is like a deeply buried vein of gold: If we fail to keep digging away at the bleak, hard rock, no sunlight will ever bring what is hidden alive.

Christians do not measure good prayer by the amount of pleasant emotion that accompanies it. The sign our prayers have been heard is not an overflowing feeling of joy or consolation or peace. Sometimes these gifts come, given by the Holy Spirit. But just as the Lord commanded us to love our enemies, not to like them, he commands us to pray, not to enjoy it. If we pray long enough, if we are persistent, that joy may come. I have heard holy men and women describe it so. Frankly, I wonder what it must be like.

In heaven, we believe that the prayer we labor to do here will become an endless, effortless song of worship. The immediate vision of God will inspire an eternity of joyful praise. But for now, we must obey the command of Christ that we pray always, that we support one another in prayer, and that we have faith that despite the distractions and the fear and the dullness, our prayers are heard. God is a persistent listener.