Game Changer: 17th Sunday OT

A young woman got in touch recently to ask me if it’s okay to be angry with God... definitely not the first time I've heard that question. I wonder if Genesis 18 doesn’t give us part of an answer. Is Abraham angry at God here? If not angry, at least exasperated, right? GOD I JUST DON’T GET YOU RIGHT NOW.  We are all Abraham at one time or another, telling God we don’t understand, asking what the heck He’s doing and is this really for the best?

Jesus gives us another image, and it also has that edge of pestering, silliness, let’s just say humanity. He describes that persistent neighbor who won’t quit knocking on the door, not as an example of bad theology, not as an example of lack of trust, but as an example of prayer we shouldn't be too proud to imitate.

Prayer is not the performance of a theologically perfect and unfailingly Saintly act. Prayer is giving God what you actually think, what you actually feel. God isn’t interested in an act; He wants you — confused you, angry you, frustrated you, exhausted you, questioning you. He also wants joyful you, grateful you, wise and thoughtful you, peaceful you — whatever you’ve got right now, He wants the real stuff.

We know this, at a common-sense level, as a sign of a deep relationship. For most people, you keep a proper reserve. You’re careful about how you present yourself, you try to make a good impression, you take care to be socially adept and presentable. But then there are the people you’re really close to, the ones for whom you don’t put on an act, the ones who get the real you. They get to see you at your best and worst, they get to see your silly joyfulness, your weirdnesses, and sometimes your unvarnished ugliness and weakness. Now which of those relationships do you think God wants to have with you?

Talking to people about their relationship with God is one of the great joys of my life as a priest, and one of my favorite questions is “tell me about your prayer life.” Often people say they pray every day, and a lot of times they’re talking about those little moments of prayer throughout the day where your heart turns to God.

Well, that’s awesome. Sometimes in our tradition those moments of prayer are called ‘recollection:’ when you recollect, you remember, the most important things you know that aren't always on your mind: that God is there, that He can help you, and that you absolutely need that help. Those moments when something or someone is so beautiful that you spontaneously thank the creator of all. Those momentary liftings of mind and heart to God, they consecrate the day, in the spirit of 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing,” and Philippians 4:6, “in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”

These momentary prayers through the day are so good, they’re even essential. For many of us, though, these little moments of recollection are all we can point to when we say we pray every day. Maybe we could add meal prayers, weekday Mass, maybe the rosary.

I’m going to give you some very personal testimony, because that was me for a long, long time. I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours every day, the Holy Mass almost every day, I kind of went in streaks with the Rosary, and throughout the day I would have those recollections, those momentary prayers. And those were all great and amazing gifts from God to sanctify my day and draw me closer to Him.

But I had also read enough of the writings of the Saints, and thought enough about Jesus’ own example of prayer, to know deep down that something was missing. We saw that missing thing in last Sunday’s Gospel, when Mary of Bethany sat with Jesus and listened to Him, and He called this the "one thing necessary." Now it would be putting it too strongly to say I never listened to God. God could and did work on me through those prayer practices I described, especially the Mass, especially the quiet moments of the Mass. But to just really take time to sit with Jesus and just to listen, that wasn’t there.

Once I was convicted that it was missing, I started resolving to add it to my day. I’d get going in the morning and think that after Mass might be a great time. After Mass I would remember I needed to answer some emails so let’s get that out of the way so I could focus better in prayer. After emails I’d think I’d better do that yard work now before it gets super hot, then I can pray in the afternoon. And so on until my head hit the pillow and it had never happened. Maybe you can relate.

So I took another step of resolution. I followed advice I’d heard often and made it thing-number-one for every day. I set the alarm accordingly, took a shower to wake up, and it was prayer time. I set a thirty minute timer on my phone, and just sat. Looking at an image of Mary holding Jesus or Jesus on the Cross helped me focus, or reading like just for two minutes at the start. I didn’t use this time to tell God what I wanted. I didn’t bring any agenda at all, except to be with Him and to listen. Some days I was super distracted, some days more attentive.

At no time did I hear a voice tell me deep truths about life or what I should do. To be honest, nothing was happening that felt important or productive. After any given morning, you could’ve asked me “what happened?” and I’d have struggled to find anything to say. But that didn’t bother me because I’d learned from the Saints that when we give God this kind of time, we can trust that He is working on us, often in ways that happen way beneath the surface, in ways that are completely imperceptible to us.

I can not tell you how much this changed my life. Things I’d been struggling to improve for years and years and years without progress, now began to actually change, like that moving of mountains that Jesus told us to expect. Some of the changes were hard. I think maybe the reason I avoided this for so long wasn’t that I thought it wouldn’t make a difference, but because I thought maybe it would, and I was afraid of that. Thank God, He overcame that resistance.

I’ll just tell you about one particular change, not because it's the most important, but because this one is easy to describe. For as long as I could remember, I’d had a longing for greater simplicity of life, in terms of possessions, but had mostly ignored it. Once I started the prayer of listening, it started to happen. It came naturally and it was a joyful thing, not a burden at all, it felt great! I probably own less than half as much stuff as I did back then, and it’s still progressing. I just very recently felt God calling me to take another particular step, to let something in particular go… something I once didn’t think I could let go of. Now I will, and with a feeling of freedom and joy. It's not a matter of God making me do something I didn't want to. It was God giving me the power to do something I wanted deeply but hadn't been able to do on my own.

Alright, there’s more to spiritual life than one trick that solves everything. This was just one of many steps in the path on which God continues to lead me. But I don’t think any other step has made such a big difference, concretely, in my life internally and externally, as just committing to doing what Mary of Bethany did, for a half hour each day. Just sit and listen. What does God say when I listen? I could almost never tell you anything. The power happens deeper than the level we can sense. I always loved how Mother Teresa described it. Somebody asked her what she said to God during all that prayer time. She said, "I just listen." He asked her, "Wow, what does God say?" She said, "He just listens, too." I get that.

I’d love to talk with you in some spiritual direction if this makes you the least bit curious or interested. There are so many lessons passed down by the Saints, so many benefits to having someone to bounce things off of when it comes to your prayer life. But with or without someone’s help, why not take a step, and do it now? And if you’re looking for your next step, and if you don’t already have a daily habit of prayer that involves really listening — no agenda, no wish list, just time with God — well, now you can probably guess my suggestion. Listen to the Lord’s own example, and the testimony of so many Saints who have been closest to Him, and listen to them and do what they do… and just throwing in for what it’s worth that I’m just one more person who can testify: Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.


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