The key to Persistent Prayer

The key to Persistent Prayer

This weekend, I celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation with two parishes in Cheyenne.  On Saturday evening, I was at St. Joseph’s Parish and on Sunday morning at Holy Trinity Parish.  The homily is below.

“Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always and never give up.” (Lk. 18:1)  Do you know what is one of the most common things that young people write in their confirmation letters about prayer? When I ask the students to write me a letter, I ask them to describe how they pray. Here is are a few quotes from their letters:

  • “I hardly pray anymore, or get any alone time. . . . but I want to become a better child of God.”
  • “I don’t really do daily prayer, and yes I know I should.”
  • “I honestly don’t spend much time in prayer at all. I really only pray when I feel that I have the time which is not very often, but I want to make a habit of praying regularly every day.” 

I admire the honesty of these young people. They describe two issues with prayer: First, they don’t take much time for prayer. Second, they want to pray more. What they say is not only true for them, but also for most adults.  About 7% of Catholics have a habit of praying every day. Why do people not pray?

For one thing, often we think too much of ourselves and too little of God.  In our busy lives we feel too important, but we don’t see God as ‘Large and in charge.’ We don’t live with a good balance between God’s power and human effort. St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2834)

In the first reading (Ex. 17:8-13), Moses held the staff of God as the Israelites fought against Amalek. The staff of God symbolized the strength of God. With the staff in his hand Moses released the plagues on Egypt. When he held it over the sea, God divided it and the people passed through. The staff brought forth water from the rock. It is not just that Moses prayed, but he prayed with the staff of God.

The Israelites believed that they could win a battle only with the strength of God. As we heard in Psalm 121 today, “The LORD is your guardian . . . he is beside you at your right hand.  The LORD will guard you from all evil . . .  The LORD will guard your coming and going both now and forever.”  (Ps. 121:5, 7-8)

First of all, “Pray as though everything depended on God.” Second, “Work as though everything depended on you.” Sometimes we don’t pray because we are slothful. To be slothful doesn’t merely mean to be lazy spiritually. It also means to lose hope in the midst of trials. Another word for sloth is acedia, which means literally “to not care.”  The person with acedia does not care about life because he has lost hope in the meaning of life.

The desert fathers call acedia the noonday demon.  In the hottest part of the day, when work is the hardest sloth creeps in.  People give up because they are worn down by sickness or the trials of life.  They feel that what they do doesn’t matter anymore because they have lost a sense that God is with them. They don’t care because they think that God doesn’t care for them.

Jesus had the opposite attitude.  Do you know why he never gave up?  Because he knew that God the Father had his back.  He believed that the Father cared for him, even on the cross.  You can hear his trust in the Father’s love when he said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!” (Lk. 23:46)  My favorite prayer of Jesus is, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:34) In that prayer Jesus expresses his trust in the Father’s love for those who crucified him and for all sinners.  How could we not pray with confidence to a God who is so good?

For Jesus, the most important thing is to remember to whom you pray.  In this gospel reading (Lk. 18:1-8) he tells us, “Be persistent in prayer because God is a just judge.”  We think of judges who sentence people to prison for crimes.  But in Jesus’ day, the judge was a defender of the least.  The judge was the one who made sure that the defenseless were protected.

Jewish law stated that the cause of orphans had to be heard first, then widows. The Hebrew people believed that God gave first priority to the cries of little orphans, and next in priority were widows.  God’s heart is moved by the neediest among us. Therefore, if a crooked judge will answer a widow who is persistent in demanding justice, how much more quickly will God respond to our petitions? “Will not God secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?” (Lk. 18:7)

Do you fail to take time to pray, or have you given up on prayer? Then ask yourself, “Do I have the right image of God?”

Jesus urged us to never up on prayer because he was utterly convinced that God cares for us.  God is a merciful Father who pours out his gifts for his chosen ones. God is a just judge who is quick to defend the rights of the defenseless. The Lord is your guardian.  Six times in Psalm 121, the Lord is described as a guardian. The same word is used for a shepherd who constantly watches over his sheep so that wolves cannot get them. “The LORD will guard your coming and going both now and forever.” (Ps. 121:8)

Catherine of Siena said: “Don’t you understand?  God is running after you day and night as though he has nothing else to do but simply to occupy himself with you.”

One of the students who wrote about prayer believes that.  He wrote: “I pray for at least 20 minutes every night, and I ask God to help all the sick people and my family so God holds their hand at all times.”  His simple way of praying shows trust in God as our just judge and guardian.

One girl wrote: “My praying process has become better throughout the year. I have prayed every day 5 minutes in the morning, thanking God to see another day. My daily ‘routine’ is praying in the morning, then at night I would read something out of the Bible.  Sometimes I pray for any upcoming tests at school.” You can hear in her letter a young lady growing in her relationship with God, a few minutes to thank God in the morning and time to read the Bible at night.

Prayer is a muscle to develop. Prayer warriors work at it every day, like an athlete who trains daily.  Here are a few basics of prayer:

  • Choose a specific time to pray. I pray every morning about 45 minutes.
  • Dedicate a place for prayer, maybe a prayer corner in your room.
  • Start prayer by listening to God. Be quiet in nature. Read the Bible. Always let God speak first, then talk about your day.

 “Pray always and never give up.”  Prayer makes saints. We can see the power of prayer in the lives of the saints.  St. Maximillian Kolbe was at the concentration camp at Auschwitz when the Nazis sentenced ten men to die in a starvation bunker.  Kolbe volunteered to take the place of one man, then he led his fellow prisoners in prayer and songs.  The prayer kept him strong.  You could see it in his eyes.  The guards told him not to look at them because he had such a piercing look.  The prayer made him strong as steel.  Everyone died from starvation but him, so the guards injected him with poison.

St. Paul said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13) God will be with you as a guardian.  Today ask God for that grace in Confirmation and as you receive the Eucharist. Be persistent in prayer and God will fill you with the strength to do anything.

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