Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Simple Way to Pray Always

St. Paul tells us in his first letter to the Thessalonians to “pray constantly” (1 Thes 5:17). At first, this command seems right up there with “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) in the category of impossible Christian tasks. After all, if I pray constantly, how will I have time for anything else? I’m not a monk!

St. Francis de Sales gives us a simple solution. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, he says that the key is to foster a conscientious awareness of the presence of God and to make regular aspirations or ejaculatory prayers to God throughout the day. Aspirations are short prayers, sometimes as quick as a thought, that fly up to God like an arrow. In fact, Protestants call them "arrow prayers" for this very reason.

What's nice about aspirations is that they are unobtrusive. You don't have to designate a time to pray and a place to pray. You don't have to stop what you're doing so that you can go and do this. This is the type of prayer you can pray while you're going about your day. While you're working, while you're studying, while you're playing a sport, even while your talking with someone, you can pray in this way. This means you could pray all day if you wanted. Or, as St. Paul says, "pray constantly."

One thing I love about the Bible is that it never proscribes an action without also showing us how to do it. This kind of  praying is not unique to St. Francis. It's in Scripture too, and the biblical characters who pray in this way can be very instructive for us.

The Cup-Bearer before the King

Nehemiah, cup-bearer for King Artaxerxes of Persia, gives us a classic example of effusive prayer:
The king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing else but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “For what do you make request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may rebuild it.” (Neh 2:2-5)

Nehemiah was “very much afraid.” The plight of his people rested on his answer to the king’s question. Get it wrong, and the king could very well say no. So, what did Nehemiah do? In the short time between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response, he sent a quick prayer up to God.

We can imagine what it might have been: “Lord, give me the words to say.” “Lord, make the king receptive to my request.” “Lord, give me courage!” In the midst of his anxious conversation with the king, he prayed. The king probably didn’t even notice, but in that short moment, Nehemiah was able to ask for and receive the strength he needed to intercede for his people.

Peter in Peril

The apostle Peter gives us another example of effusive prayer, during Jesus’ miraculous calming of the storm and walking on water:
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:28-31)

Of course, none of us will be walking on water any time soon, but don’t we often feel like we’re sinking? When we’re overwhelmed, afraid, unsteady, insecure – Peter shows us that it’s precisely in those moments that aspirations to God are the most helpful and the most needed. Peter shows us that a handful of heart-felt words or phrases can make all the difference.

Jesus, Our Model of Prayer

When we look at the prayer life of Jesus, we see that He prayed in many different ways. He was particularly fond of praying in a secluded place (Mt 14:23; Lk 5:16; 9:18, 28-29) and praying out loud for the instruction of others (Mt 6:9-13; 11:25-26; Lk 23:34; Jn 11:41-42; 12:27-28; 17:1-26). But, Jesus also prayed quick prayers to the Father in the course of His ministry and preaching.

For example, at the beginning of Jesus ministry, while He was being baptized:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased” (Lk 3:21-22).

Matthew and Mark’s accounts of this event tell us that the Spirit descended just as Jesus was coming out of the water. This means that as Jesus was coming out of the water, He was also praying.

We see another example of Jesus “praying while doing” in the Gospel of Mark:
And taking him aside from the multitude privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Eph′phatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. (Mk 7:33-35)

In the course of the healing, Jesus only had time to vocalize a sigh, but that was all He needed in order to pray for the man’s healing. Even sighing to God can be a prayer!

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says a prayer that consists of only four words:
“Father, glorify your name.” (Jn 12:28)

If Jesus has taught us anything, it’s that it really doesn’t take much to pray to the Father.

The final examples of Jesus praying aspirations come on the Cross. Many of His very last words before He died were quick prayers to the Father in the midst of His suffering:
And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. (Lk 23:33-34)

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. (Lk 23:44-46)

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, la′ma sabach-tha′ni?” that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46)

Let’s put these words of Jesus on our own lips. When we hear God’s name taken in vain: “Father, glorify your name.” When someone hurts our feelings: “Father, forgive them.” When we are being tempted, or sense an evil presence, or are even near death: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” When we feel like God is far away: “Why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus shows us that these aspirations can be a powerful way to pray throughout the big and small moments of the day. Aspirations acknowledge His presence. They emphasize our dependence on Him. They are perhaps the best and easiest way to pray always.

Pax Christi,

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Seizing the Moment of Temptation

It's the middle of January. That means we're all well into pursuing our New Year's resolutions. How's it going so far? Don't worry, I get it. It's tough to quit a bad habit and start a good one.

What’s helpful for me is to be more aware of the steps from temptation to giving in. If we know what these steps are, then we can seize any one of them and pursue the good, before it’s too late. After all, we don’t want to just seize the moment to share our faith or to proclaim the gospel. We also want to seize the moment to be holy, to be, as Matthew Kelly says, the best-version-of-ourselves.

I’ll be speaking specifically about the steps from temptation to sin, but this exercise is useful for avoiding any bad habit we want to overcome. Also, I’ll be referring to the devil because he’s a ready foil in the back and forth dialogue between ourselves and what tempts us. But, temptation doesn’t just come from the devil. It also comes from “the flesh” – our own bodily passions and desires – and the world, which is always competing for our time and attention.

Step 1: Recognizing

First, we become aware of a temptation. A voice pipes up: “You could steal that, ya know?” We are tempted to commit certain sins because they speak to a desire we have. But, the fact that we have particular desires or are tempted to heed them in unjust ways does not mean that we have sinned. We sin only when we act on the temptation.

The key is to banish the temptation as soon as we recognize it, to turn around and run in the other direction. If we debate with the devil, then he will almost always win. The best thing to do is to not let him have his say.

Step 2: Approaching

But, let’s say we don’t flee. Instead we say, “Really? Tell me more?” Then we are approaching. In this case, we don’t remove ourselves from the near occasion of sin. Instead, we draw nearer to it. We meet the devil in his chambers. We invite him to make his case. If the bad habit is over-eating, this would be opening the cupboard where the cookies are. If the addiction is alcoholism, this would be stepping into the bar.

Step 3: Listening

Listening means nourishing an interest in that which is sinful. In this step, not only have we invited the devil to make his case, but we are now listening intently and receptively. We may even be delighting in what he has to say.

Of course, once the cupboard is open, then come all the reasons for eating: “No one will know.” “Just this once.” “I deserve this.” “This is the only way I’ll feel better.” “I can’t help it.” “I can just go to Confession later.”

Step 4: Yielding

And with that, we yield. We give in. The reasons are too many and too convincing, even though they are contrary to reason. We accept the lies as the truth and we do what we were tempted to do.

But, just because we’ve yielded, that doesn’t mean the devil is through with us. Once the pleasure fades and we begin to feel disheartened, the tempter likes to fill us with self-loathing and despair so that we’ll abandon ever trying to resist him. “You’re such a wreck.” “You fall every time.” “Why do you even bother?”

Not So Fast

This is why the moment of yielding must also be the moment in which we pick ourselves up and try again. With a little bit of knowledge and a whole lot of grace, this step does not have to be the end. Instead, we can seize even this moment of failure, and we can rededicate ourselves to making the next moment a truer and better one.

Pax Christi,
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