Sunday, July 17, 2011

Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
16th Sunday

in Ordinary Time
July 17, 2011
Rom 8: 26-27
Ursulines, Willow Dr., N.R.

“The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8: 26).

When the apostles wanted to learn how to pray, it was easy for them to turn to Jesus and ask him to teach them. And Jesus gave them that most basic of all prayers which we call the Lord’s Prayer.

In the physical absence of Jesus, we can and do still use his prayer. But often we want more. We may be unsure of what to pray for, or we may suffer interminable distractions, or we may want some new formula that’s a little less rote, or we may want to be able to put more heart into what we say to God. There are so many ways in which we feel our prayer to be inadequate, so that “we do not know how to pray as we ought.”

There’s an old Eastern European Jewish story that might encourage us:

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortunate threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to say the prayer, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again, the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient.” Once again, a miracle.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.

It’s a story of God’s sufficiency when our own knowledge or resources are insufficient. It’s a story of grace, if you will. It’s a story of “the Spirit coming to the aid of our weakness.”

In the Our Father we pray that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. But we seldom know what that will is. (Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem John Brown’s Body has a magnificent scene in which Lincoln struggles to discern that amid the carnage of the Civil War.) Too often we try to get God to accommodate himself to our will. Praying in the Spirit would have us praying like Jesus in the Garden: “Not my will but yours be done” (Matt 26:39). We’d leave ourselves open to the apparent frustration of our own hopes and desires.

We all know that St. Monica prayed for years and years for her son’s conversion. When he decided to move from Carthage to Rome in order to pursue his worldly ambitions, she prayed that he’d change his mind or that something would prevent his sailing to Italy, where she was afraid his faith and morals would meet complete shipwreck. God ignored her pleas, and Augustine sailed to Rome. Apparently that was because God had other plans, which became evident when the young rhetoric teacher moved on to Milan—at that time the home of the imperial court and so the place for an ambitious young man to be—and Augustine fell under the influence of Milan’s talented and holy bishop, Ambrose. So Monica’s more fundamental prayer, that her son be converted, was heard altho at least one of her intermediate prayer, that he stay in Africa, was not.

So our prayer, if it’s really prayer and not just the projection of our own egos, has to rely upon the ultimate wisdom of God, which is to say, on the Holy Spirit.
Such reliance is the best possible way of praying. “The Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (8:26). What we don’t know how to pray for, or what we can’t find the right words for, the Spirit knows and puts before the Father—no words necessary. The longing of our hearts, the Spirit carries to the Father—whether our hearts are heavy or light, whether they are bursting with praise or collapsed in anguish, whether we need forgiveness or guidance.

Of course we can use words too. In her column in the current issue of Catholic New York, Mary DeTurris Poust recounts how one afternoon she “was complaining about some minor problem,” and Chiara, her five-year-old daughter, “said, ‘Why don’t you just talk to God?’ Chiara one day had overheard her “frazzled” mom “talking out loud to God” and “picked up on the fact” that Mom often talks to God “not in traditional prayer form but as if I am talking on the phone with a friend—when I’m stressed.” Without intending it, Mary had taught Chiara a wonderful way to pray—just talk to God like he’s your “good friend, someone who will always listen.”[2]

Because God is our friend. Jesus assures us that we’re his friends, and he’s given us his Spirit to reassure us. Just a few verses before the passage that’s our reading today, Paul tells the Christians of Rome that the gift of the Holy Spirit enables them to address God as Abba because, in giving them Jesus’ Spirit, he has adopted them as his own (8:15). He’s Dad; Jesus is friend and brother. If that weren’t enuf for them to read our hearts, the Spirit takes care of whatever more’s needed: “And the one who searches hearts [the Father] knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because he [the Spirit] intercedes for the holy ones [those made holy because he dwells in their hearts] according to God’s will” (8:27). The Spirit of Jesus, deep within us, makes our prayer to the Father, uttering what we can’t because our human nature is too ignorant or too frail or too distracted or too overwhelmed by our sins or not bold enuf to come to the Father and demand his attention.

What is required of us for prayer is only 2 things: 1st, that we want to pray, that we make the effort, that we put in the time, that we give God a piece of our schedules; and 2d, that we really want to be open to him, to his will, to his desire to make us holy and bring us into his world—not the other way around. When Paul speaks of “the intention of the Spirit” and of “how we ought to pray,” he’s speaking in the context of our eternal destiny: “the glory to be revealed for us” (8:18), “creation set free from slavery to corruption and sharing in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (8:21), “the redemption of our bodies” (8:23), our hope of salvation (8:24). The Spirit of Jesus most gladly intercedes for us, adds his “inexpressible groanings” to the “groanings of creation in its labor pains even until now” (8:22), that we might be saved despite all our weakness.

[1] Recounted by Brian Cavanaugh, TOR, The Sower’s Seeds: 120 Inspiring Stories for Preaching, Teaching and Public Speaking (Mahwah: Paulist, 2004), pp. 14-15

[2] “Building Prayer Into Busy Lives,” CNY, July 14, 2001, p. 35.

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