Some of you may remember that not too long ago we heard the parable about a persistent man pestering his neighbor in the middle of the night to borrow three loaves of bread.
Now we have a persistent widow pestering a dishonest judge who ignores her as long as he can, but finally gives her justice, partly because she’s so annoying, but also because he’s afraid that one of these days she may clobber him!
I think our Lord intended these stories to be a little funny, but of course to make a serious point that if pestering even a sleepy neighbor or a dishonest judge who doesn’t want to hear about your problems can work eventually, how much more should we continue to have confidence in our loving Father and continue to bring our needs to him even if the answers to prayer can seem slow in coming.
Why Persistence Matters
It’s important here that while our Lord encourages us with the assurance that our Father will not be slow to answer, that justice will done swiftly, the delay in both parables is there for a reason.
St. Luke tells us the point of this parable is not only that we should pray, but that we must pray always without becoming weary. We must continue to cry out to him day and night, Jesus says, so clearly we don’t always get the answer or the help we want right away.
It’s not enough to pray—we must persist in prayer! Prayer is one of those things like eating, bathing, or even breathing that we must not just do but keep on doing, regularly and well, as long as we live.
This is not always easy. To pray always without becoming weary is a battle — like the battle that Israel fought against Amalek in the first reading. And what happened in that battle? As long as Moses kept his arms raised in prayer, Israel had the better of the fight, but if Moses’ arms grew weary and sank down, Amalek started winning.
The spiritual battle of the Christian life is exactly like that. Prayer is a battle because the spiritual life is a battle. What are our opponents in this battle?
The Devil, of course. But what are the proxies, the allies the Devil enlists to keep us from progressing in prayer?
Opponent #1: Ignorance
The first opponent, for many people, is ignorance. People don’t know how to pray. Don’t really know what prayer is.
Some people have superstitious ideas about prayer: they see it as trying to get what you want out of God. So they only pray when something goes wrong. And then maybe they find that it doesn’t “work” the way they expected, so why bother?
Many people learn to say a few prayers like the Our Father and the Hail Mary, but never really learn about mental prayer, about seeking God inwardly through silent recollection and contemplation. Some learn to say the prayers of the Rosary but never really learn about meditating on the mysteries of Christ’s life.
Prayer is a battle, but at its core it’s also something very simple: the raising of the heart and mind to God, who waits for us. It’s just spending time in his presence. It’s bringing to him the concerns of our heart, but also opening our hearts to him.
It’s something we’re all called to do as a community in Mass, but also something that each of us has to learn to do on our own if we really want to know God personally and grow in our spiritual lives.
Opponent #2: Inertia
Our next opponent is simply difficulty getting started, indifference, inertia. The technical name is acedia; it’s a kind of sloth or spiritual laziness. You know how a body at rest tends to stay at rest? Well, the same is true of our spirits!
Getting started — just taking the time to turn our hearts and minds from our habitual patterns of thought and raising them to God — is probably the biggest hurtle. If prayer is a battle — that’s half the battle right there.
Not praying is like not exercising or not eating right: we have bad habits that we need to overcome and replace with good habits.
The first thing is just recognizing that we need to make a change. Why do I feel bad? Well, physically, maybe I’m out of shape and it’s starting to take a toll. Spiritually, maybe I’m out of touch with God.
We need to figure out how to make time for what’s important, whether that’s exercise or prayer. We need to figure out what we can do without in our lives, whether it’s a dessert we don’t need or a half hour playing computer games. Not that there’s anything wrong with games or dessert! But we need to set priorities.
Sometimes shame or guilt contribute to our inertia. We tend to keep putting off prayer the same way we put off going to confession, or to the doctor or the dentist, because we’re afraid of the bad news. And the news just gets worse.
But God isn’t like most doctors or dentists. He certainly isn’t like a sleepy neighbor or dishonest judge. He’s waiting to welcome us.
In fact, the first movement of our hearts toward God — the thought “I should pray” or “It’s been a while since I spent some time praying” or “I feel bad about not praying” — that comes from God. It’s God’s gift to us. We need to train ourselves to respond to that first movement.
The most important thing about praying is just to do it. Do something. Like exercise, doing anything is better than doing nothing.
Opponent #3: Distraction
Then, once we overcome that inertia and start praying, our next opponent is distraction. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, but once we start praying, do we tend to keep praying? No. We start thinking about other things! It almost seems unfair.
But that’s human nature. It’s always been human nature, but I think it’s even harder nowadays, in a world in which there is so little quiet and so many distractions — in which most of us carry distraction with us all the time in our pockets.
So often our phones are the first things we reach for in the morning and the last things we touch at night. We’re always listening for that beep or that buzz that tells us someone or something wants our attention. Do we hear God vying for our attention?
Even in Mass all too often there comes that ringing sound, distracting everybody! We need to turn off our phones, in Mass but also sometimes at home, in order to give God our undivided attention.
We need silence to pray. Jesus did! Over and over in the Gospels he goes off to a deserted place to pray. Why a deserted place? To get away from distraction, from people wanting his attention!
Distraction in Mass
The problem isn’t just our phones. It’s us. It’s our nature. We come to Mass and the priest says “The Lord be with you” and we say “And with your spirit” and before long he’s saying “Let us pray” — and since we don’t have anything else to do at that moment, it’s very easy to start to zone out and start thinking about what we’re going to do that afternoon or all the things we wish we had done the day before or whatever it is.
I know I face that problem in Mass! I’m sure that Father would tell us that even priests have to deal with distraction in Mass. The battle is not so much never to be distracted as to keep catching ourselves as quickly as possible and turning our minds back to God.
Did you hear, really hear, the collect this morning — the prayer in the beginning just before the first reading? Here it is again:
Almighty ever-living God, grant that we may always conform our will to yours and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart.
That’s what prayer is ultimately about — not conforming God’s will to ours, getting him to do what we want, but conforming our will to his!
This is also a constant battle. Sometimes we’re praying and we really feeling it and our hearts are completely surrendered to God’s will, whatever it may be — and then the next day, or even later the same day, we go back to wanting what we want. It’s a constant battle.
Opponent #4: Dryness
And then sometimes we’re praying … and praying … and we don’t feel it. Don’t feel anything. Feels like we’re not getting anywhere, like God’s a million miles away. This is a third adversary: dryness or aridity in prayer, when prayer feels like a slog, like a waste of time.
That can be the hardest prayer to pray; it can also be the most meritorious, the most transformative. Those times when prayer is most rewarding are God’s gift to us; those times when we pray when it feels most pointless are our gift to God.
Prayer is a battle, but not only a battle. St. Francis of Assisi said “Prayer is true rest.” We must fight to enter into that rest.
The battle starts with silence; it ends with peace. In the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta: “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.”
We must fight for that peace, not just today but every day, all our lives. Let’s pray for one another! I’ll pray for you. Please pray for me.