Tuesday, November 9, 2010

10-10-17: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 17:8-13 / Psalm 121 / 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 / Luke 18:1-8
Taking a cue from Moses in today’s reading from Exodus we might conclude that prayer involves a lot of hard work: Moses must keep his hands raised in prayer for, if he lowered them, Israel would lose the battle. In the gospel parable Jesus suggests we imitate the widow who ceaselessly harangues the dishonest judge to get what she needs: pray in the same way, Jesus seems to be saying, and you’ll start to see results. It’s an airtight argument: not getting results? – you’re obviously not being persistent or perseverant enough. Keep at it and the answer will come.

But how do you know how long is long enough? And, besides, is God fair in all this – basing outcome on persistence? After all, some of us are just naturally less patient than others, suffering a kind of spiritual ADD. Back in 1915 when the Age of Doubt was gaining steam, W. Somerset Maugham wrote Of Human Bondage. The protagonist, Philip Carey, having been born with a club foot, decides as a young boy that, if he could pray hard enough, God would miraculously heal him of the physical deformity which caused him such heartache. One night he strips naked in the freezing cold, kneels besides his bed, begins to pray and eventually falls asleep. The next chapter begins: He woke and limped downstairs.

Did Philip not pray enough; had he not prayed hard enough? If not a full-fledged miracle, couldn’t he at least have expected a little less limping for his trouble? Well, it’s only a novel, after all – not real life. Besides, if he had been healed, the story would have turned out quite differently – and probably way less interesting. Life, though, is a lot like that: filled with more than a little suffering and a whole lot of unfairness. Prayer may be the only weapon available for many of us to try and even the playing field. Linking prayer with hard work helps turn what appears to be childish wish-making into something more substantial.

When C.S. Lewis’ wife was dying from cancer, a friend saw him praying in the chapel at Oxford. “Don’t be too despondent,” his friend said. “I’m sure God will hear your prayers.” Lewis replied: “I don’t know if he does or not. You see, I’m not praying to change God’s mind; I’m praying to change mine.” Although it seems a part of every religion, including Catholicism, to believe that we owe God our prayers and worship, it doesn’t make much sense to think he gains anything by them. But if indeed prayer somehow makes our minds and hearts more akin to his mysterious nature, more accepting of the challenges we face, more free than less -- then prayer may really be something formidable.

Philip Carey could have continued to wish that his club foot would heal, but it was his prayer (was it answered or not?) which brought him face to face with the reality of his life. Be careful what you pray for, the old adage goes, you might get it. The it often being the very thing we least expect, or want, or think we need. God plays, it seems, so we might pray: He tricks us into asking him to grant a wish; but, by prayer, helps us accept instead what we need to.

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