Sunday, 28 July 2013
As you may recall me mentioning last Sunday, I've been away this week on retreat. I've spent 5 full days in silence. Not saying anything. Time alone with God.
I go on a retreat like this every year, and whenever I refer to it to parishioners I'm always aware that it is quite a privilege for me to be able to go on a retreat (though I am also aware that a good number of you go on retreats yourselves).
On my retreat I spent about 5 hours a day in prayer: Talking to Him about my life, and about my sins, bringing many intentions and needs of parishioners before Him, but mainly just being silent before God. As the saintly Cure D'Ars used to say when asked what he did when he prayed: "I look at the good God, and He looks at me."
I don't pray that much usually, and I won't pretend I find it easy. To spend that long talking to God can be difficult because He doesn't talk back to us the way that others do. And yet, prayer is important for us, essential for us simply because we're human.
Prayer can sometimes be something that people talk about as if it is for OTHER people to do. Monks and nuns pray, but ordinary people don't. But the reality of human experience, and of what God has told us in the bible, is very different. In every ancient culture of the world, on every continent, we find that people pray. And they do so because there is a human need within us to contact God. The spiritual soul that we humans have within us yearns for contact with the spiritual God. Our soul seeks its home in the God, because it cannot find its home anywhere else. Prayer is where our spirit meets His, and if we neglect prayer, then we’re not fully human. To pray is to be human, it’s what we are designed to do. As the great St. Irenaeus said, and I think I've told you before, "Birds, fly, fish swim, people pray”.
That's why Jesus taught us to pray, as we heard in today's Gospel text: in the "Our Father" we just heard Him teach. And He taught ALL of His followers to pray, not just a special few of them. And in the Old Testament, too, God taught His people to pray. In Genesis, we heard how powerful the prayer of Abraham was in asking God to spare the people of Sodom. And that’s an example to us of the power of OUR prayer, as Jesus said, "Ask and you will receive"(Lk 11: 9).
Jesus promises us that He hears our prayers, which is important to remember, especially at those times when it seems like He's not hearing us.
But let me point out what many saints have said about prayer, including prayer of petition: it’s important not so much because it changes God as because it changes US. Yes, it somehow changes God in that He chooses to only grant things BECAUSE we ask them. But, it changes us too, and this seems to be key to what prayer is about.
We, small humans that we are, need to pray, need to make our petitions to God, because we need this way of remembering that we need to connect ourselves to Him, to Him Who is our life.
Let's be honest, if prayer was only about saying sorry, or only about saying how wonderful God is in praising Him, few of us would get around to it, few of us would bother. But ASKING for things, prayers of petition, THIS is something most of are much better at! And it benefits us too by putting us in touch with the spiritual dimension of our life that otherwise flounders.
As I said, I've just been on 5 days of intensive prayer. Most of you, I know, have your own patterns of prayer: daily, and weekly, and seasonal. Whatever we do, let us take our Lord's words to us this Sunday in the Gospel as a reminder of the importance of our need to pray.
Sunday, 21 July 2013
I'm going on my annual retreat this week, and this year I'm off to join the Poor Clare sisters in Lynton in North Devon. I've visited them before and, being Poor Clares, they are definitely, to use the American expression, "hard core". They live poverty in the extreme. They have no heating -not a problem this week, but a serious issue in the winter. You might know that, similarly, one of the controversies among the various reforms of the Carmelite order was the question of whether they could wear socks with their sandals. Not because they were concerned about the fashion faux pas of wearing socks with sandals but because they thought it too much of a luxurious comfort.
Now, such Religious Sisters and Brothers do not embrace poverty because they somehow don't enjoy life. Rather, they do it because they have found what TRULY brings joy to their lives, namely possessing Christ alone. We just heard in our Gospel text that account of Martha and Mary, with Mary being praised because she recognised that she had "the one thing necessary"(Lk 10:42), namely, Christ the Lord. Our psalm similarly spoke of the reward of the just being to "live in the presence of the Lord". Our first reading came to a similar point from a slightly different angle, it spoken of the Lord "visiting" Abraham in the form of the three angelic visitors. And to have the Lord with us is THE truly great blessing, the thing that enables us to bear any difficulty, that enables us to rejoice in any hardship, because we have the One who we know truly loves us.
Thinking of that phrase in the Gospel text, "the one thing necessary", I was struck, and somewhat intimidated, by an interpretation of this I read a couple weeks ago by St John of the Cross. He was speaking of the MEANS of getting to God, and how if we truly realise who He is, then we need to pursue a means towards Him that is proportionate to Him. If I have understood him correctly, his analysis goes like this: as the end or goal, Jesus alone is "the one thing necessary", and to have Him is to have everything. But what is the MEANS to get to this end, to Him? In this sense, "the one thing necessary" is "self-denial"(Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, chapter 7, section 8). And this is a hard teaching, even if is it the teaching of Our Lord that "if anyone would be my disciple he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me"(Mt 16:24): That spirit of self-denial we embrace especially in Lent must be with us at other times too.
If we have recognised that Christ loves us, if we have recognised that Christ is worth us loving Him in response, if we have recognised that ALL fulfilment is to be found in Him, then we must want to deny ourselves all things in order to put aside things that distract us from Him.
Seeking my own comfort distracts me from Him.
Seeking my own wealth distracts me from Him.
Seeking my own preferences rather than the preferences of others distracts me from Him.
All these things, comfort, wealth etc, can be truly good (created by the good God), but if we love them in themselves then they lead us away from God. As the Lord Jesus puts it, you can "use" money, "that tainted thing"(Lk 16:9-10) but we shouldn't love it, neither as an end nor as a means to the end. The means to the "one thing necessary" is self-denial.
So, this week, while I'm on retreat, and seeing the good nuns without any socks under their sandals, I'll be thinking myself about what things I love, and whether I am denying myself enough to gain "the one thing necessary", Christ The Lord.
Sunday, 14 July 2013
We just heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, and like yourselves, it’s a parable I’m heard countless times. However, for all my familiarity with the text, there is one question that only occurred to me quite recently: Where was the Good Samaritan going to?
He must have been travelling for a purpose. And that purpose must have been interrupted by his helping the man who was in need. If that Samaritan was like most of us, he must have felt busy, must have felt like he didn’t want to be interrupted. HOWEVER, and this is my point: to love my neighbour means I must be willing to be inconvenienced in order to help him.
I was struck by this rather obvious point when I had a flat car battery. I’d left my car at Tiverton Parkway train station, which as some of you may know is in the middle of nowhere. My train got me back there late at night, practically no one was around, and I realised that my car battery was flat. Fortunately my father had raised me well, and, like always, I had a pair of jump leads in the boot. But these are no use unless someone else’s car is there with a working battery.
It was dark, remote, and there was just one person I could see. So I asked him for help. And I realised that I was interrupting this man who had a desire to get somewhere else. And I was struck too, in a way I never had been before, that the Good Samaritan must have been desiring to get somewhere else when charity called on him to help that man in need.
That night I was fortunate. That man allowed himself to be inconvenienced and he helped me. But I have often reflected since that part of what it means to be “a neighbour” to someone, to “take pity on him”(Lk 10:37), is to inconvenience myself.
Let me put it another way, St Therese of Lisieux taught that, “the language of love is sacrifice”. Well, every time I make the choice to love someone, to be LOVING to someone, it is a choice to make a sacrifice. Sometimes of my time, sometimes of my money, sometimes simply of my energy.
Surely, a simple test of whether I am loving is this: do I feel the sacrifice?
Is my generosity to the poor such that affects the way I live because I have less money for myself?
Is my willingness to let others interrupt me such that it shows I think of others before myself?
Now, it is true, that we all have many responsibilities, and a need in front of me now might not be as important as a need further away –if you helped an old lady cross the street that’s a good thing. But it’s not a good thing if you should have been feeding your starving child at the time. i.e. I’m not saying that we must always allow ourselves to be interrupted.
But, my WILLINGNESS to be interrupted is a pretty good test of my love. And my feeling, or not feeling, the sacrifice involved is a pretty clear sign too. If I don’t feel the pain then I’m probably not sacrificing, I’m probably not loving.
To come back to my opening query: the Good Samaritan was going somewhere else when he stopped to help the man in need. If we would be “a neighbour” we need to have that same spirit in us too.