19 Oct Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 16, 2016
Deacon Blaine Barclay
There are two distinct but related themes running through our scripture readings for today. Perseverance in prayer, as being foundational for the practice of the faith, and the foundational importance of Scripture in our formation as missionary disciples. I want to connect these two themes.
The people of Israel are on their journey to the promised land, but are meeting with resistance and are about to enter into battle with a rival king and his army. On the eve of this decisive battle Moses says, ’Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand’’. This is the same staff that Moses held during his experience of the burning bush, that consumed the serpents of pharaoh, that parted the Red Sea, that now signals their capacity to prevail over the strong forces assailed against them. The same staff that would later be kept in the holy of holies in the Ark of the Covenant. In our reading today Moses holding up the staff of God is a symbol of perseverance in prayer. Only with sustained prayer will the people of God prevail against the forces arrayed against them. Only in prayer can we lay hold of our victory which has already been won in Christ. Notice also that Moses does not pray alone. Aaron and Hur help his weary arms to lift high the staff of God. Likewise, we do not pray alone. We’re sustained by the prayer of the church, the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. We are sustained by the prayer of our fellow Christians and by the prayer of the Communion of the Saints.
Likewise, the gospel today has to do with the need for perseverance in prayer. ’’Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.’’ In the parable, a judge who neither fears God nor respects the dignity of human beings, nevertheless grants the petition of a poor widow because of her perseverance. The lesson being that if we persevere in prayer, God will not be deaf to our cries.
And so we are called to persevere in prayer. But, concretely, what does that mean and how are we to do that? As we may all well know, there are many ways or approaches to prayer, many types of prayer. Different people at different times of their spiritual journey will be attracted to different disciplines of prayer, but there are classic approaches and core teachings about how to live the life of prayer. In a certain way I would have to say that the backbone of personal prayer is ‘liturgical’, that both the mass and the liturgy of the hours are like the skeleton on which we grow the flesh of our personal prayer life. Prayer has been called a ‘conversation’ with God, but like any conversation, the most important dimension is attentive listening, the capacity to be attentive to the presence of the Other. The ‘Our Father’ is a model of the perfect prayer. Aware that God is present to us in radical intimacy and closeness, it addresses God as ‘Abba’, papa or daddy. It begins with praise for God, ‘may your name be held holy’, and expectation of the coming reign of God, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’. It is a prayer that calls us to trust God for our daily bread and to forgive those who have sinned against us. In short, it calls us to conversion of life. It seems that prayer, apart from conversion of life, is mere words, empty chatter, a noisy gong, a clashing cymbal. Many other things come to mind when we think of prayer, Praise, Thanksgiving. Petition, Adoration, Mental Prayer, Affective Prayer, the Prayer of Quiet, Contemplative Prayer, the Prayer of the Imagination, and Lectio Divina which is a way of praying with scripture. The Rosary, when prayed well, combines a number of these approaches to prayer including Lectio.
In conclusion, let me connect the two themes from our readings, perseverance in prayer and the foundational importance of scripture in our training as missionary disciples. St. Paul tells us, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the one who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.’’ The life of the disciple is rooted and grounded in Scripture. Timothy, the one St. Paul is writing to, had a Greek father, but he had a Jewish mother who would have formed him in the Torah from his infancy. St. Paul takes it for granted that Timothy had a high degree of familiarity with and love for the Scriptures, and he wants him to pass on this teaching. But how are we to cultivate for ourselves this kind of intimacy with Scripture? We can read the scriptures, pay close attention when the scriptures are proclaimed at Mass, and even join a bible study group. But the best way to study the scriptures is to Pray the Scriptures, or to Pray with Scripture. The Mass itself is saturated with Scripture, and not just the readings alone. So when we pray liturgically, we are already praying the scriptures. This is also true of the other liturgical prayer of the Church, namely, the Liturgy of the Hours, or, the Divine Office, 98% of which is taken from the bible, especially the book of Psalms which has been the prayer book of Jews and Christians for thousands of years. We can’t go wrong with praying the Psalms, and as we build up the habit of praying the scriptures, and praying with scripture, this life giving Word will move from our mouth and our ears, to our head and our heart, and finally to our hands and our feet. A kind of Marian moment when the Word once again becomes flesh and dwells among us.