Pray like Jesus

I just finished reading Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love. I don’t want to admit how long it took me to finish this book, but in it I found some great insights and a few reminders about prayer.

The first and most important thing that we must always remember is that prayer is always about relationship with God. God has invited us into relationship with him, and prayer is our response to that invitation. We see this exemplified perfectly in Jesus Christ. Jesus, who is God, takes time away regularly in the Gospels to pray. The Gospel writers never hide this. They tell us that Jesus went away to pray, especially when something huge was going on. Jesus, the Son of God, did not need to pray to maintain his relationship to God the Father. The relationship between the two of them drew Jesus to prayer.

As we grow closer to God in our own prayer, we will find something similar happening in our lives. In our prayer, we put in the effort to grow closer to God. It is very challenging at times. To truly grow closer to God, we must grow in humility and vulnerability. We humbly recognize that God is God, and I am not. Through our humility, often a painfully challenging virtue to learn, we can then be vulnerable to God. Our humility before God reminds us that he has the answers and we do not, so the smartest thing we can ever do is bring them to him so that God can heal us. We can present him with those dark corners in our hearts, those dark corners that we really don’t want to admit to anybody—sometimes not even ourselves. This is not fun. It is hard.

True change is never easy, but that is exactly what happens when we bring our vulnerabilities to God in silent prayer. We entrust ourselves, our futures, and our souls to God, knowing that he will never hurt us. Remember what Christ said, “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Matthew 7:9-11)

There is so much more in this book that I could share, but I will save it for another article. In Ephesians today, Paul writes, “So be imitators of God, as beloved children.” When we were baptized, we became the children of God. We must imitate him in his love and generosity. If we ever wonder what imitating God looks like, we can go straight to the source and look at the example of Jesus Christ. He brought all of himself to the Father in prayer. We should strive to do the same.

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes that “Prayer is happy company with God.”

May we strive to keep that happy company.

John 3:16 and Fear of the Lord

Everybody loves to quote John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. It is a very comforting passage when taken out of context. When we read it in context, though, this passage ought to inspire the fear of God in us. Fear of God is a virtue. We spend a lot of time trying to talk around it and say it means something else, but it is vitally important we recognize that God is the absolute ruler of this universe, and what he says is what happens. Our opinions do not matter, only the truth as given to us by God. The truth in today’s Gospel is a warning to all of us.

Jesus said to Nicodemus: // “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, // so must the Son of Man be lifted up, // so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” We have to start by remembering why Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert. The people of Israel had committed the sin of idolatry. They worshiped a golden calf. They began partaking of the same horrendous rituals of the clans and tribes around them. We see these same actions condemned in the first reading today: In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people // added infidelity to infidelity, // practicing all the abominations of the nations // and polluting the LORD’s temple // which he had consecrated in Jerusalem. The word abomination means that these actions are not the simple worship of false gods. When worship becomes an abomination it usually includes rituals acts of wanton lust done in a perverse mockery of temple liturgy. They would have included human sacrifice, and worse. I will spare you the details. (In the podcast “A Land of Giants”, they get into a lot of the strange & nerdy details.)

The children of Israel, both those in Moses’ day and those in the first reading today, were punished by God. When you partake in abominable actions, there are consequences. God had sent his messengers, his prophets, and the people did not listen. When the people of Israel hardened their hearts and refused to repent, the LORD’s anger against his people blazed up beyond remedy. The instigators of these atrocities lost their lives, and those who were saved were the ones who repented of their wickedness. This action by God may seem drastic, but we must consider this: these abominable actions were making a mockery of God at a minimum and were potentially outright demon worship. Allowing such acts to continue would destroy Israel. God had swore to protect his people. Occasionally the only way to do this is purification from false prophets and false religion: to remove the bad influences through somewhat drastic means.

Christ said that the Son of Man [must] be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. God the Father desires us to look upon his only begotten Son, nailed to the Cross. He wants us to believe in him. He wants us to repent of our sin so that we might have eternal life. He wants us to flee from the condemnation which our sin has rightly earned us, for the Gospel continues: And this is the verdict, // that the light came into the world, // but people preferred darkness to light, // because their works were evil. // For everyone who does wicked things hates the light // and does not come toward the light, // so that his works might not be exposed.

John 3:16, when we read it in context, paints a vastly different story for us: God the Father sent his Son to us out of love to save us from ourselves and present the gift of eternal life, and we—humanity—rejected him. We deserved death for this rejection, but God’s love overpowers even this rejection. St. Paul teaches us that God, who is rich in mercy, // because of the great love he had for us, // even when we were dead in our transgressions, // brought us to life with Christ. Christ invited us to join him in his Resurrection, and he gave us the means to do it. When we are baptized, we die to this sinful world and are reborn in the Resurrection of Christ. This is why Baptism is so critically important: in Baptism we die to the darkness and become children of the light, we begin to live in the truth.

[W]hoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

As children of the light, we are called to allow God to burn brightly within us. We are called to show the light given to us to those who still live in the darkness who have never encountered the Good News of redemption given to us by Christ. We are called to show the light given to us to those who have extinguished the light that once burned in them.

There are many things we must do to show our light to those around us, but we must begin by purifying ourselves. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the way that we do this. Each is essential, all of them must actually be done in both our bodies and our souls. We must actually pray. We must actually give some sort of alms. We must actually fast from food. Many of us struggle with physical fasting, and I know there are some medical situations which make it impossible, but for the vast majority of us, fasting from food—actual physical fasting—is essential. St. Basil the Great wrote that, “if all were to take fasting as the counselor for their actions, nothing would prevent a profound peace from spreading throughout the entire world.”1He later continues that “abstinence from food is insufficient for praiseworthy fasting. […] True fasting is being a stranger to vice, controlling the tongue, abstaining from anger, distancing oneself from lust, evil speech, lying, perjury.”2Even those who cannot physically fast must strive to fast from these other things.

Today is Laetare Sunday, a day of rejoicing in the midst of Lent. We rejoice today because our Lenten works of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have allowed us to grow closer to God. As we enter this final time of preparation to celebrate the victory of Christ over death, let us be ever more intentional about turning toward the light.

Today’s Readings:
March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Psalms 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21

John 3:16 and Fear of the Lord

God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save it. Our response was… not great.

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

(posted 3/18/2021)

Our Secret Lenten Campaign

In Lent we pray, fast, and give alms so that we can destroy our self-centeredness and become worthy to join our Heavenly Father at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2021.

Our Secret Lenten Campaign

In the collect, sometimes called the opening prayer, we asked God that today “we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self restraint.” Shortly, as we prepare the gifts before the Eucharistic Prayer, during which they will become the Body and Blood of Christ, and then will be sacrificed and offered to God the Father, we pray that we might undertake this campaign of purification, penance, and charity so that, “cleansed from our sins, [we] may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion of [Jesus Christ].

These prayers tell us everything we need to know about the holy season of Lent which we begin today. they tells us why we engage in Lenten practices: so that we become worthy to celebrate the Passion of Our Lord. We celebrate our Lord’s Passion every time we participate in the Mass, but this is all a shadow of the true celebration to which we are invited at the end of our lives: the Heavenly Wedding Feast of the Lamb. To celebrate this eternal banquet well and devoutly, we must engage in a campaign of Christian service on this earth. The point of this service is to eradicate evil from our lives: evil cannot coexist with our God, whom we will join in Heaven.

To engage in this campaign of Christianity, we utilize the weapons of self-restraint. As the prophet Joel teaches us, we must rend our hearts and not our garments. In plain English, he is telling us that what is inside our hearts is much more consequential than what is outside. Christ tells us how to rend our hearts in the Gospel today: pray, fast, and give alms. Our Lenten practices should incorporate all of these. For example: perhaps instead of buying a coffee and bagel in the morning, we could save that money up and donate it to the Lord’s Diner at the end of the month. We could make a daily effort to pray for those poor people on this earth who are alone, lost, and who have nobody to pray for them. Instead of giving up meat on Fridays alone, we could give it up on Wednesdays as well. These practices of self-denial and mortification “break us in order to raise us up and open our hearts” by destroying our “obsessive concentration on self caused by sin.” (Louis Bouyer as quoted in Magnificat, February 2021, p. 270)

Perhaps the most important aspect of these ascetic practice urged by Christ is one we often overlook: we should do them without drawing attention to ourselves. By engaging in these practices and not seeking worldly recognition, we allow our Father, who Christ repeatedly tells us sees the secrets of our hearts, to give us that recognition when we meet him at the Heavenly Banquet where we hope to join him. Humble prayer, fasting and almsgiving done in secret is a defining trait of Christian asceticism.

This year, we are given an extra chance at humility. Because of the pandemic, the Vatican has changed the distribution of ashes in many countries. Instead of receiving a cross on your forehead, we will sprinkle ashes on the crown of your head. This is an ancient practice, which we find in the Bible centuries before Christ. While new to us, in many countries, such as Italy, this is what they always do.

Unless you are lucky enough to have a beautiful bald head like mine, nobody will be able to tell you are fasting today. Nobody will be able to tell that you went to Mass today. Nobody will be able to tell that you began your Lenten campaign today. Nobody will be able to tell that you are rending your hearts to become worthy to celebrate the Passion of Jesus Christ today. But that’s OK. Because your Heavenly Father, who sees what is hidden, will repay you with everlasting life.

Today’s Readings:
Ash Wednesday
February 17, 2021
Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Conversation with God

Prayer is communication with God, and it is essential for Heaven.

Homily on the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, January 17, 2021.

Come and listen

“Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Never in a thousand years could Samuel have guessed what he would do in his life. He was to be the last of the great judges of Israel. He provided steady leadership and guidance to the people of Israel, but His sons were unworthy to follow him as leaders of Israel, and the people demanded a king. Samuel would anoint two kings, Saul and later David, and he never feared to challenge abuses of Saul’s power directly. All of this was the will of God, enacted through Samuel, who, for the entirety of his life, never stopped listening to God and serving him.

We all must strive to listen to God as Samuel did.

There are two primary ways in which we can listen for God: prayer and study, specifically, study of Scripture. They are not mutually exclusive. Some would argue that the best way to study scripture is, in fact, while on our knees.1 Prayer is absolutely essential to our lives as Christians, and yet, many of us neglect it or think that going to Mass on Sunday and praying a rosary or two is sufficient prayer. These are good things, but they are not enough. We are called to pray without ceasing. (1 Thess 5:17) That is a lofty goal, but it is attainable if we recognize what prayer actually is and devote ourselves to prayer.

Prayer, simply put, is communicating with God.2 To share the deepest moments of our life with him. To ask for his help, but even moreso, to ask for his love. This isn’t automatic, and we must practice communicating with God. In other words: the way we learn to pray is through prayer.3 Think about your relationship with your closest friend: Were you instantly able to talk about the deepest movements of your heart? Or was it a bit challenging and uncomfortable at first? It can be frightening to plumb the depths of your life and bring forward the deepest secrets in our hearts. It is scary to be vulnerable with someone. Make no mistake: more than any moment of physical vulnerability, the moment we open our heart to another person is one of the most vulnerable moment of our lives. We fear rejection at the core of our being. We are human, after all. We have been created to live in community.

With God, though, we need not worry about rejection. He loves us deeply. He will not reject us. “[W]hen we can be vulnerable enough to show it all to God, to let Him into it and let ourselves be loved in the midst of it, we experience the transforming power of His love.”4 No matter how odd our personality, no matter what kind of sin we’ve gotten into, God loves us infinitely and uniquely. Fr. Jacques Phillippe writes that “God’s love is personal and individual. God does not love two people in the same way because it is actually his love that creates our personality, a different personality for each. There is a much great difference between people’s souls than between their faces…”5 Prayer opens our soul to the word God wishes to speak to it, the word of his unique love for us. This love, which he intends for us to share, is living and active. This love calls each of us to a unique mission amongst his holy people.

How, then, do we pray?

First, make a commitment to pray a certain amount per day. I don’t care who you are, you can always find five minutes a day to pray. Honestly, I suspect we all have 15 minutes at least we can give to God. If you don’t think you do, pull out your phone and look at your screen time app. How much time do you spend on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever? I promise you that time in prayer will be better for you body and soul than any thread or post or story.

Second, find some silence. Some people will deny this is necessary: they are wrong. Perhaps someone experienced in prayer can find the peace necessary to pray, but beginners in prayer—most of us—need silence, because we need to quiet our minds from all the distractions of the world. In this area, it is helpful to prepare. For example, you could listen to some music, like Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, or one of Bach’s Oratorios. Note that the kind of music matters. If it doesn’t lift your soul to God, then it won’t help you to cast aside this world and meet God.  If that’s not your thing, do some deep breathing for a minute or so.

Third, just pray. Tell God what’s happening in your life. Tell him what’s good and what’s bad. Tell him what bring you joy and what terrifies you. Tell him how you feel about him, whether you’re happy with him or furious at him. Tell him what you need help with. Ask him to help you. Maybe most importantly, ask him to help you see how much he loves you.

Finally, don’t forget to be silent with him for a while. We need the silence: it is in the silence that God speaks to our hearts. Remember, Samuel said, “speak, your servant is listening.” He did not say, “listen, your servant is speaking.” If you feel inspired to read some passage in Scripture, go for it, but don’t go overboard. Prayer time is not reading time, and even I make that mistake too regularly.

Single people, you can make time to pray, you just have to decide to do it.

Married couples, you have it a little harder, especially if you have children. Nevertheless, husbands and wives: your primary goal is to get your spouse to Heaven. To get to Heaven, a person must pray.

Husbands, I don’t care how challenging it is or how tired you are or how grumpy the children are, there is no excuse for not giving your wife a few minutes of silence a day so that she can pray. You have one job that matters: get your wife to heaven. Do it.

Wives, I recognize that you are burdened with many tasks and are often exhausted and many times have already spent much of the day with the kids, but your husband needs a few minutes of silence a day so that he can pray. Remember, your most important job is to get your husband to heaven.

Children, when your parents are praying, don’t bother them! (Well, if someone is hurt or the house is on fire, you can bother them…) Instead of bothering them, join them in prayer.

Christ has invited us, saying Come, and you will see.

Let us go to him in prayer, so that we might see eternal life.

Today’s Readings:
January 17, 2021
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19; Psalm 40; 1 Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20; John 1:35-42

Lamps of Faith, Oil of Good Works

oil lamp

God gives us faith as a gift. Do we allow it to shine forth by supplying it with the oil of good works?

Homily for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

The Almighty Power of God

God’s absolute power allows him to judge us with leniency.

Homily for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

Online Examen Prayer Retreat now posted!

Since the coronavirus has stopped most (all?) public gatherings, it forced my parish into cancelling my in-person Examen Prayer Retreat that was supposed to be today. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like being in-person get in the way of the retreat, though! I’ve recorded my retreat talks and put together a page for the retreat. It includes a schedule for watching the videos, reflection, and prayer. It also includes information on other resources where you can go deeper into the Examen Prayer.

The retreat takes about two hours long, and is available by clicking here.