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Monday, October 21, 2013

Final thoughts (for now) on prayer and the widow &c &c (C29O)

Men and women pray together in Tahrir Square
I do not intend to give the impression that I know anything more about prayer than anyone else. It's a mystery to me, as I tried to expressed this summer in my post "I Say a Little Prayer for You" on intercessory prayer, occasioned by another gospel. Experience keeps summoning wonder. One is called both to evaluate the interpretation of one's past experiences as well as to trust those experiences as revelatory of God's presence. Somehow. But it's never easy, at least not for me.

This summer, I was busy writing a book about Lent. Or rather, it's a page-a-day book with reflections based on the daily readings of Lent, a project that fell into my lap when, I suppose, someone else decided they didn't have the time or energy for it. But I had to confront the same dynamics in those Lenten readings as we have in the liturgy yesterday. Lent encourages us to rekindle in ourselves (or, allow the Holy Spirit to rekindle in us) the discipline of prayer, with those same difficult words from the gospel: "Ask, and you shall receive. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives." Everyone. That's the word I choke on. Really?

Because "everyone" is sure praying. Everyone wants the war to end in Syria. Everyone prays for the end of violence in America's cities. Everyone wants children to have a chance at life. Everyone wants hunger and thirst to stop killing people in Africa and India. Everyone wants to be wanted, to be safe, to be loved, connected, and validated. Everyone wants life and work to have meaning. Everyone wants enough. And to appearances, not everyone is getting very much of any of that, least of all the people who pray for it, and who depend on the Lord to hear the cry of the poor.

Nevertheless, in what may be my first-world, bourgeois milieu, I could not say with integrity that my prayers have never been answered, answered in ways both hoped for and unexpected. And that's just what I am aware of. Who knows what has happened in my life beyond the scope of my awareness and consciousness, or how my prayer and hope might have changed the world in ways invisible to me? But those aren't even my point. I just mean to say that, as far as I am able to discern, I feel that God has heard my prayers sometimes, which, given God's nature and mine, makes me want to say that God always hears my prayers, and sometimes I notice.

As I wandered at Mass yesterday between my anger at what I experienced as carelessness with an important RCIA rite and my anticipation of the Crop Hunger Walk that would almost immediately follow the choir mass, kicking myself for my forgetting to rehearse a new "Holy" while fretting about the ensemble ending together on a strange beat in a new song, I remembered writing in that Lent book I mentioned above something about the temptations of Jesus. Matthew's long version of the story is read on the First Sunday of Lent, and part of what I wrote was based on a homily I once heard about how Satan in the story is giving a Jesus a lesson on how not to be a messiah. Satan, in his temptations, tries to get Jesus to depend on God to answer his prayers with a faith so blind that it is, in human terms, suicidal. Using scriptural language, he encourages Jesus to throw himself down from the heights, because (here, Satan begins singing "On Eagle's Wings" in Linda Ronstadt's irresistible voice) 
For to his angels he's given a command
To guard you in all your ways.
Upon their hands, they will bear you up
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
But Jesus doesn't buy it. He's already figured out that being messiah, God's anointed, means acting like God acts, which is to say, by loving and inspiring love. He can only be messiah by being human, by accepting the limitations of human knowledge and activity, and by accepting that the God who anoints him for mission is a God who is agape and kenosis, a god less of spectacle than of service.

I suspect that this knowledge informed Jesus's prayer, and thus the prayer of Jesus, the Lord's prayer, is a prayer of mutuality, for the appearance of God's influence in the world, for forgiveness of one another, for enough bread for everyone for today and tomorrow, and, most critically, directed toward a God who is head of a household to which all belong as family, and not toward some other avatar.

Persistence in prayer, then, must somehow be relentlessly pursuing Our Father, the reign of God, daily bread for all, and mutual forgiveness of debts. That is a little different from what I want for me and mine, but right in line with the poor woman in yesterday's gospel, who wanted only what the judge was supposed to deliver: justice. 

I still want my children to have good life partners, meaningful work, and time to rest and enjoy the world. It's just that now I see that I need to add, "And I want that for everybody's children, including my mom's firstborn, whether he deserves it or not." And then my mind goes to my mom's firstborn's enemies, or really, the thorns in his selfish side and the burs in his ample saddle, and praying for the same goodness for them. See how prayer could get to be a full time job, and a manifestation of conversion? I want to be loved, but prayer calls me to love other people because I already am loved, so shut up and stop worrying about it.

All that having been said, then, where do you put Moses's prayer that enabled Joshua to "mow down Amalek and his people with the sword"? We have to hear about that on the same day we hear in 2 Timothy that "all scripture is inspired by God," which makes the whole thing even harder to swallow. I guess it inspired me to ask these questions, and hope that Moses has found a better reason to pray. Like before that heavenly Seder, where he's breaking bread with Amalek.

That's my report from the cloud of unknowing.