Jesus went up to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God (Lk 6:12).
Jesus spent the whole night in prayer to God. What is prayer? All of us as human beings seek meaning and to belong. We desire security and stability, as well as direction and adventure. We want to be accepted, to love and to be loved and to experience meaningful relationships. These primary yearnings are present within us. Often though we confuse what we truly desire and succumb to the temptations that ultimately leave us unsatisfied and more important ignore what will truly fulfill us: developing a relationship with God through prayer.
If you want to pray, you have already begun. The desire in and of itself to pray is prayer. The danger of reading about prayer is that we think we are praying. In the turning of the page or completion of the chapter, we feel as if we are accomplishing something, but we are only imagining how prayer can be. Peter Kreeft wrote: “It is tempting to remain in the comfortable theater of the imagination instead of the real world, to fall in love with the idea of becoming a saint and loving God and neighbor instead of doing the actual work, because the idea makes no demands on you” (Prayer for Beginners, 12).
There is a myriad of ways to pray and each practice will match each of our unique personalities. The key to prayer is to make a commitment to a time and a place to pray each day. Start with a timeframe, such as five minutes that you know you can do. Depending on the discipline of prayer you practice, your family, school, work, and/or ministerial demands will be indicators going forward as to how much you might be able to increase the time you pray once you have built a consistent practice.
The amount of time that we dedicate to prayer is not important. What is important is the commitment to pray each day. For me, attending Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours has been a consistent anchor since studying for the diaconate. The daily Mass readings, writing a reflection each day on them, and then sharing both with JoAnn was a practice we shared together each evening. Beginning about a year ago, I started meditating in the morning and the evenings. Before bed, I end the day praying and meditating with the mysteries of the Rosary.
JoAnn was less contemplative and more active in her prayer. She would speak to God as if speaking to a friend, we attended Mass together, and she experienced God in her daily activities and encounters with people. I too have found that seeing Jesus in those we encounter is a sign of our maturation in prayer. For the person is no longer other or one to be kept at arm’s length but a human being with dignity created in the image and likeness of God. This becomes more apparent when we spend time with one another.
St Therese of Lisieux offers us a good approach to prayer: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” (CCC, 2559). No matter how we pray, our goal is that we allow our lives to be conformed to Jesus, that we encounter and build a relationship with him and each other, such that our experience of prayer matches St Augustine’s: “True, whole prayer is nothing but love” (Foster, 1).
Photo: Taking a hike or walking with JoAnn was one of my favorite forms of prayer!
Foster, Richard J. Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. NY: HarperCollins, 1992.
Kreeft, Peter. Prayer for Beginners. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed and yeast. Each of these elements is not only small but they are tiny. Though with the proper environment, resources of sustenance, water, and sunlight, this seed will germinate, sprout, and grow into a large bush. Yeast, a single-celled organism, is the catalyst for assisting dough to rise, strengthen, and ferment, thus providing a more appealing and tasty bread.
Jesus offered these simple examples from everyday agrarian life that his listeners understood from experience. If we have planted seeds or made our own homemade bread, we could be in a better position to relate to these two small parables as well.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus lives out the parables, in his engagement person to person. Jesus’ interaction happened concretely, through walking along the road and breaking of bread together, sharing stories, teaching, healing, and exorcising demons with his touch, and he still does so today. The smallest, genuine act of kindness or love can seem insignificant and may even go unnoticed by many, but it is important to the individual and can reveal dramatic results over time.
There is a story that expresses this point called, “A Simple Gesture” from the story collection, Chicken Soup for the Soul. The short tale describes how one day a boy named Mark was walking home from school and came upon another boy who had tripped and dropped all of his books and many other items. Mark offered to help carry some of the load of the other boy, who, as they walked home, found out was named Bill. They talked about common interests and when they approached Bill’s home, Bill invited Mark in for a Coke and to watch some T.V. They spent the afternoon together, then interacted on occasion for the rest of middle school and into their high school years.
Three weeks before their graduation, Bill asked Mark if they could talk. Bill shared that the reason that he had been carrying all of that stuff home on the day they had first met was because he didn’t want to leave a mess for anyone else to clean up. Bill had planned to commit suicide that evening. Bill continued to share that, after their original encounter and afternoon together, he realized that if he had killed himself that day he would have missed more opportunities to talk and laugh. Bill finished the conversation by saying, “So you see, Mark, when you picked up my books that day, you did a lot more. You saved my life” (Canfield and Hansen, 35-36).
Personal encounters were how Jesus helped others to realize that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Mark, in making the effort to help Bill pick up some of the personal items that he had dropped, helped to shift the momentum away from a potential suicide attempt. This action shows how Jesus can continue to work through us today.
Like a modern-day Good Samaritan parable, “A Simple Gesture”, helps us to see that when we are aware of opportunities to help and act with genuine care, no matter how small, we can have a dramatic effect on another’s life. The opposite is also true.
Many people have a lot on their plate, we may not be aware of even half of what others are going through. That is why we need to be attentive to the move of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He will lead us out beyond ourselves so that we notice others. In doing so, we become like the mustard seed, or the yeast, in another’s life. Through a smile, a hello, a bent ear to listen, what may appear to be minuscule or mundane at the moment, may, in fact, be life-changing and transforming.
Photo: Back when we were still dating! Without JoAnn’s consistent kindness, caring, and support, I would not be where I am today.
Canfield, Jack, and Mark Victor Hansen. Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1993.
Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath. And a woman was there who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit; she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect. When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God (Lk 13:1013).
In reading this Gospel passage, we see again the compassion and mercy of Jesus. He was aware and saw the need of the crippled woman, called her to himself, she came, and through his words and the laying on of his hands, the woman was healed. He did so without hesitation, knowing that since he was healing on the sabbath this would bring further scrutiny and criticism. Yet, Jesus did not think of himself, he thought of the woman in need and made himself present to her.
Jesus is not only a model of service but also the very power as the Son of God that brings about healing. In today’s Gospel, Jesus was aware of the woman’s need. The first step in building a culture of life is to respect the dignity of each person we encounter and to be aware of their need. It is much easier to be unaware of or to operate from a position of – they brought the issue upon themselves. We can react with indifference, impatience, and/or contempt because we would rather not be bothered by another’s issues.
The next step is an invitation. Once Jesus becomes aware of the woman, he did not impose his will, even for her healing. Instead, Jesus invited her to come. We need to respect another’s option to say no to help and allow them to come on their own. Though there are times, such as for those who are dealing with an addiction, when there may be a need for more direct intervention.
We need to resist being stumbling blocks to others in need of the healing presence of Jesus. We are all capable of accepting another where they are and as they are, we can will their good, and we can be a healing, understanding, and supportive presence. We can be a means of healing as were the four men who brought their crippled friend to Jesus and being undeterred from not having access by letting him down through a roof (see Mark 2:1-12 and Matthew 9:1-8). We are called to bring the love and mercy of Christ to others and we also need to be kinder and more gentle with ourselves. When there is awareness, invitation, acceptance of the invitation, and two or more gathered in the name of Jesus, there can be healing.
Photo: from freebibleimages.org
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40).
The scholar of the law who asked Jesus to share with him which commandment of the law is the greatest was a common question among Jews for they had 613 laws! Following these laws was how one showed faithfulness to God. Discussing which were the most important and which were those of lesser rank as well as the practicality of learning and practicing all 613 presented quite a challenge. How do we do with just following the Ten Commandments today? Could we even recite the Ten?
The scholar brought Jesus into this debate. Jesus’ response, that we call today the Great Commandment, was a masterful synthesis of the Torah, the Law, or the Teachings. He drew from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which was the beginning of the Shema, the prayer that Jews offered each morning and each evening while facing the Temple that stated: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Jesus then added to it Leviticus 19:18: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
As we witness time and again with Jesus, he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (cf. Mt 5:17). Jesus sought to help people to come to know his Father who he knew so intimately, who he loved so fully. Though the Great Commandment sounds simple enough, and it is, it demands our whole self, our full commitment to be contemplatives in action. We are called to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind. That means all of us, physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. We are to recognize that God is actively engaged in all of what we do and who we are in every aspect of our self-identity and integrity.
Our lives will be richer and more fulfilled once we embrace, once we open ourselves up to this reality, and resist the temptation to compartmentalize our time with God. Saying we are only with God on Sunday while in the sanctuary of the Church but leaving him there in the tabernacle is not loving God with our whole heart, soul, and mind. Stepping into the parking lot becomes like a time warp in which we go back into secular apparent reality, where in the first instant of encounter with our neighbor cutting us off with their car, our hand gesture is most likely not a blessing in the form of the sign of the cross.
If we can turn on a dime so quickly, have we really worshipped at all? Are we living our lives more as Pope Francis calls, “defeated Christians”? Are we just going through the motions of our faith, showing up but our heart, soul, and mind aren’t fully engaged? Pope Francis shares that “the one who confesses the faith well, the whole faith, has the ability to worship, to worship God” (Francis, 292).
We become Christians, contemplatives in action when we give our all as did St. Francis of Assisi who would often pray this simple prayer “My God and my all”. He gave himself in love, all of who he was to God. He encountered the God of Jesus Christ who is Love, received his loving embrace, and went forth to share that love with others. This is called the Greatest Commandment not one of the Greatest Commandments, because loving God and neighbor is one and the same act.
May we embrace the gift of who God is for us, not just as the one who created us and went away to do whatever God does, that is deism. The God of Jesus Christ is a God of relationship grounded in unconditional love, the one who is present with us always, in all the practical and mundane we do, and in everyone we meet. Through this embrace of God and his love and going out from ourselves to will the good of the other, the better we will be able to heal from our wounds of prejudice, bigotry, selfishness, pride, greed, lust, fear, and anxiety.
Our very life is a blessing, a gift, to be thankful to God for and to share and bless others with. May each thought we entertain, each word we speak, each action we take, each facial gesture we express, be one of encouragement, of support, of empowerment, and of love. Dedicating ourselves to following the Great Commandment means that we are to approach our life one day at a time renewing our commitment to love God and neighbor a little bit better today than yesterday. To aid us in our trust and conviction, let us pray often the prayer of St. Francis, “My God and my all”.
Photo: Replica of the San Damiano Cross that I have had since my novitiate year while with the Franciscans. When St. Francis was praying before the original he felt the call by God to rebuild his Church.
Pope Francis. Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday. NY: Image, 2015