Sunday, July 28, 2019

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Catholic Liturgy for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 28, 2019. Gospel – Luke 11:1-13. Theme: Lord Teach Us to Pray

In the days of Jesus, it was expected that a Rabbi or Teacher would give his followers a simple prayer that would encompass his approach to God.   This is why we heard in today’s Gospel that John the Baptist gave his followers a prayer and why Jesus’ disciples wanted him to do the same thing. And so, we received the Lord’s Prayer directly from the lips of God himself.  This prayer is an example of Jesus the Older Brother teaching all of us how to love and speak with God our Father.  The Our Father is both a prayer of its own and a pattern or blueprint to teach us how to pray.

When I was a young man newly reverted to the Catholic Faith, I had that very same desire, the very same question which a disciple asked of Jesus: teach me how to pray. Oh sure, I knew how to recite memorized prayers: the responses at Mass, the rosary and such things. And as good and beautiful as those are – and I still use them every day – but I wanted to be able to speak to God comfortably in my own words, from my own heart.

I wanted to establish a meaningful personal relationship with the Father through his Son, Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. I wanted God to be real and active in my messed-up life and I knew that the key to this was personalized prayer. Yet I just couldn’t get there. I don’t know why, but every time I tried I would end up at a dead end. But then the Lord taught me how to pray through a person who came into my life.

This person shared with me a simple method based on the pattern of prayer Jesus gave us in the Our Father, beginning with the praise of God and then laying before him in all simplicity the present and future happenings and concerns of my life. I was taught an acronym which as, you probably know, is a word wherein each letter of that word reminds us of what to do.  The acronym I was gives was quite simply the word PRAY.  P-R-A-Y.

The P stands for Praise. Just as we begin our visit with a friend by greeting them, so we begin our prayer-time with a short and simple greeting of spontaneous praise to God.  Perhaps something like this, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, and I thank you for the gift of my life. I praise You also for this gift of prayer, for this time to be alone with You.”

The R stands for Reveal.  We move into the heart of our conversation with God and reveal to him what’s on our minds, what’s in our hearts, just as we would with a friend from whom we are seeking advice. He is, after all, our Father who loves each one of us passionately and delights in having us share these things with him. Speak to him about what is happening in your life; the questions you have; the troubles you face; the fears you worry over. In this way let him really enter into your life and show him that you want him to walk with you through it every step of the way.

The A stands for Ask.  Just as we ask a friend to speak their thoughts on what we have shared, so we ask God to do the same. In this part of our personalized prayer we put into practice what Jesus said in today’s Gospel: ask…seek…knock... In our own words we ask God for his guidance; we seek a solution to our situations; we knock on the door of God’s heart knowing that he will open it to us because of our friendship. After spending some time asking, we move on to the final stage of our prayer-time: listening.

The Y stands for Yield.  Just as we yield – or slow down and give the right of way to others when driving - we do the same thing when praying. We yield our own voice and give God the right of way to speak. This requires silence, quiet time, so that we can hear his voice with the ears of our hearts. His words might come to our minds as an idea, a thought, an “aha” moment. Then after spending some time in this silence, the Holy Spirit will give us an interior sense as to when our prayer-time is over and we can go about our daily duties.

The great teachers of prayer such as St. Teresa of Avila have said that the Christian who devotes at least 10-15 minutes daily to nurturing their relationship with God is assured of Heaven.  She could make such a bold statement because she knew that personal prayer is the foundation of a real and meaningful relationship with God. It takes intentional effort at first, hard work and sweating it out at times, just as with any relationship that is worth having and keeping.  

And it is a 100% guarantee that the devil will do his best to shake you from this commitment. He will whisper to you that you cannot do it, or that it’s really not worth he effort, or that you have so many other things that demand your time.  But when you get discouraged and tempted remember Jesus’ promise today: ask and you will receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” So, don’t give up but through your commitment to prayer…keep asking…keep seeking…keep knocking and the door to God’s heart will indeed be opened to you.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Better Part...

The Catholic Liturgy for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 21, 2019. Gospel – Luke 10:38-42. Theme: The Better Part

(No audio format for homily this week...)

Today’s gospel is a glimpse into a really beautiful aspect of Jesus’ life that we don’t think about very much if at all: the importance of friendship as we journey through life. If we take today’s story and put it together with other glimpses from the gospels, we learn that Jesus had some special friendships, people with whom he enjoyed just being with and relaxing. And at the top of his friendship list was the sibling family of Lazarus whom the Apostle John tells us that Jesus dearly loved, and his sisters, Martha and Mary.

They lived in the village of Bethany, which was like a suburb of Jerusalem. So, whenever Jesus traveled to the Holy City he would stay at their home where they could enjoy each other’s company. Faithful to their cultural customs, we can easily imagine the menfolk, Jesus and Lazarus, sitting in the main room exchanging news about their lives and current events, while the women took care of the various acts of hospitality.  Having grown up in a first-generation immigrant Italian family with similar customs, I can assure you that bringing out the food and setting the perfect table was the #1 concern of those women. It was seen as a direct reflection as to how much they valued and honored the welcomed guest into their home.

And it’s for this reason that Martha starts to get a little ticked off by her sister’s behavior. She sees it as a kind of insult, not so much to her, although of course she would like the extra help, but to their guest. But Jesus seems to be telling Martha that there are two ways to honor and welcome him: by one’s activity to make things nice for his visit or by one’s attentive presence, giving him personal time and conversation. Mary has chosen the latter part, the best part as Jesus calls it. She sits at his feet listening to his teachings, pondering and absorbing his word. Mary knows that they can give food and drink to any visitor who comes to their home, but when the guest is Jesus then the table is turned so to speak. It is the he who feeds them by his word and his presence. And she is hungry and thirsty for this spiritual nourishment!

Now, St. Luke doesn’t include this story in his edition of the Gospel just for the sake of giving us a glimpse into Jesus’ life. He is asking us to apply this principle of welcoming Jesus into our own lives. And so, when we hear about spiritual nourishment by giving our attention to Jesus’ word and presence what comes first to mind? For me, that’s a no-brainer. St. Luke is leading me through this story to the Eucharist, both in its celebration as the Mass and in the abiding presence of Jesus among us in the Blessed Sacrament.

Mary of Bethany is an excellent model for us in both of these Eucharistic realities. At Mass, she teaches us to really listen to the Scriptures that are proclaimed during the Liturgy of the Word; and ponder within us what he is telling us. She asks us to absorb it, to take it in and make it real in our lives and not let these words remain just black-and-white letters printed on a page. Now the best way to do this is to reflect on the Scriptures either before we come to Mass or to use them for our personal prayer during the week after we leave Mass. In either care we can easily do so nowadays via the internet which provides us with the Mass readings or if we prefer by making use of a Bible or a Sunday Missal. We need to choose this better part of being with Jesus like Mary did, so that the Word of God does not remain a sterile or lifeless within us.

Apart from the Mass, we can also become like Mary of Bethany by taking the time to go and physically sit before Jesus, truly present in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacles of Catholic churches. And make no mistake about it, when we do so we are every bit as much in the real personal presence of Jesus as Mary was, sitting at his feet in her home at Bethany. And just like her, we can give Him our time and attention, one on one, listening to what he says to our hearts and speaking to him about our daily lives, our ups and downs, our hopes and dreams, our joys and struggles. And by making a habit of this personal Eucharistic adoration time, we will see our intimate friendship with Jesus grow by leaps and bounds. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Who is My Neighbor?

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 14, 2019. Luke 10:25-37. Theme: Who Is My Neighbor?

The scholar in today’s Gospel is a man who knows all the right answers. That’s his job. In Judaism, he is called a scribe and was a professional in teaching about the law of God. This scribe must’ve been pretty darn sure of himself because St. Luke tells us that he is testing Jesus – not seeking a sincere answer -  and he is trying to justify his own way of thinking about God, life and religion. Jesus gives him an answer that must’ve slapped the poor guy upside the head and turned his smugness upside down because the hero of Jesus’ story is a Samaritan, the sworn enemies of the Jews of that time.

To better get the full impact of Jesus’ story, we need to know something about the relationships between Jews and Samaritans.   You see both groups despised each other as the result of what could be called a centuries old family feud.  In the beginning, they had been but one people descended from Abraham and ruled by the great King David.  Then, about 700 years before Jesus, their nation was invaded.  The upper and middle classes were brought out of the country and kept as slaves in what is today called Iraq.  The lower class that was left behind decided it was best to get along and began to intermarry with the occupying forces.  So, about 70 years later when the captive Jews returned home they were shocked to find out what those who had been left behind had done. And they literally hated them for it. Now called Samaritans, they were seen as traitors, religious heretics, and political enemies of the Jewish people. This animosity was so bad that Jews traveling from one end of Israel to the other would add days to their journey by going around Samaritan territory instead of taking the short cut through it. So, you can imagine the looks on the faces of the scribe and others who heard Jesus speak this parable of the Good Samaritan!

And to add insult to injury, Jesus went even further by making two models of Judaism the moral cowards of the story. Both a priest and a Levite, who would be similar to our priests and deacons of today, see the injured beaten man and they cross the street, they look the other way and go about their business. Jewish law forbids them to come into contact with blood or death if they wished to remain ritually clean and pure for worship. They put man-made laws above divine law to love one’s neighbor.  They used obedience to the law as an excuse to not have compassion on a needy human being.

And as he did with so many other misunderstandings about God and religion, Jesus is trying to set things straight. He has a lot to teach us today when law and faith come into conflict in our own nation. He wants us to understand that every human being in need is our neighbor who deserves our love and compassion in their suffering, no matter who they are or where they are from. Citizen status, political platforms or ethnic differences are never an excuse in the eyes of God and in the heart of Christ to ignore the needs and sufferings of another human being.  Jesus teaches us to look beyond these things which divide us and set us at odds with one another.  He calls us to see, to really see in the ones we consider outsiders, the image and likeness of God and to treat them with the dignity they deserve.  

I think that through this parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is calling us to be honest and ask ourselves:  Do we have the proper perspective which puts the law at the service of the human person and not the other way around?    Are we – like the scribe – looking for excuses to justify our lack of compassion for the needy and reduce God’s commandment of love into something less than what it is meant to be?  Do we – like the priest and Levite – look the other way when we see human suffering and cross the street, so to speak, so that we can continue on undisturbed in our comfortable lives?

In today’s Gospel and every day, Jesus is calling us to become something far greater than we think we can become. He is asking us to go beyond ourselves, out of our comfort zones, and to love in a way that seems impossible if left to our own devices. But he doesn’t leave us to our own devices. He comes to us, comes to live inside us, comes to love within us and love others through us, by means of his Real Presence in the Eucharist that we receive. In this way, through our intimate union with Jesus, he makes it possible for us to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbor as he loves them. And this transformation within ourselves should be as incredible and amazing to us as a Samaritan being called “good” was to the Jews.