The Battle of Prayer
Homily given by Dcn. Bill Bach for the Passionist Oblates, 2016
Why should anyone even think that praying is a battle? Isn’t praying about communicating with God, and or with the saints? Why would there be a battle? They are all good. But are we good, and is the battle one-sided?
We’d like to think about ourselves as good, or at least we try to be good. And that is a good beginning. And we are the only creatures called to respond to God in faith and love (CCC 357).
So why the battle? Let’s look at prayer and our responses, and why there is a battle!
Prayer is a battle against our own wounded nature, the distractions of the world, and Satan. We rely on God to help us pray. A loving perseverance, firm in the hope of our salvation, is essential.
We must never forget about our wounded nature. All of us have been damaged by original sin. Therefore, we are all vulnerable to the wiles of Satan. And yes, God surely gave us free will. Therefore we can go either way: we can do what we know is the right way, or we can disobey God and do something our way, rather than doing what God wants us to do.
And we are so easily distracted. Distractions are all around us. And we need to lean on God to avoid them. I know from my own experience that I am easily distracted: in conversation with someone, even someone I particularly admire and love, my wife being a great example. She will sometimes tell me something and I missed it and she has to remind me that she told me. She is kind and doesn’t tell me I wasn’t listening, but obviously I wasn’t. If I am praying the rosary or my daily office, too often I find that my mind wanders all over the place. I am easily distracted, and likely you are too. Why? Maybe because I think my own personal thoughts and observations are more important, and maybe they are important, but are they when I am trying to pray? I don’t like to think that Satan is messing with me and taking me away from the task at hand, either listening to my wife or praying the rosary. But he is subtle and sneaky and wants to take over and rule me. Oh he knows all about our free will given to each of us by God, and it becomes a victory for him to mess with God’s gifts. We must never forget that Satan lost the battle with God who threw him out of heaven and damned him forever. Being sent to hell does not leave him helpless, but enraged and determined to undermine our relationships with God. He lost, and he wants each of us to be lost too.
So what can we do to make our prayers our ammunition? We must remember, always and without exception, that God loves each and everyone of us, that he has prepared a place for our eternal happiness, and we need to be firm in the hope of our salvation.
We have a goal, something to work towards, namely our salvation, but only God can save us. So what must we do? Praying must become as important as breathing. Praying is as necessary as breathing which keeps us not only in good physical health but is absolutely necessary to keep us alive. I have never known anyone who stopped breathing for any length of time, and survived. Praying is spiritual breathing and necessary for our eternal survival. Fortunately for all of us, God is more patient with our mediocre and even lack of spiritual breathing, i.e. praying, and doesn’t cut us off leaving us physically dead as would be the case if we stopped breathing. God wants us to pray, to be in touch with him, to experience his love, and the promise of eternal life. He died for each of us because he loves us more than we can ever know in this life. But by our free will we can turn him down, turn against him and reject his love and promise of salvation. Yes, he wants to be in communication with us and he has given the saints, those who have gone on to eternity, especially his Mother, to get into action for us. What do mother’s do? They go to bat for their kids. Mother Mary certainly does, and she works even harder at it, when we implore her to help us.
Remember, prayer is always possible despite difficulties (Eph 6:10-18). We need to go to our all loving Father with humility, and ask to abide in Jesus and he in us, so that our prayer is meaningful. We all have some deficiencies, and we must rely on the Holy Spirit to make up for them. We will be given graces to help us persevere in our love for Jesus. We must remember, at all times, that by seeking God’s will and not our own, is the key to how God answers our prayers. Our faith and humility will enable us to give primacy to the will of God over our own hopes and expectations. Another way of saying that is, “God’s will be done, not mine.” By seeking our prayerful relationship with God and turning our wills over to him, is the surest path to holiness. It is something to work at all the time. The more we pray, the more we are transformed into the image of Jesus. Yes, all of us need to pray that we will become Christlike.
Let’s take a few minutes to examine our attitudes toward prayer. Let us never under value what prayer is and what it does. May we never think of it as unproductive. Let us not get into thinking that prayer is of lesser importance than other things. And never conclude that we can pray without God’s grace. And yes, we may be disappointed because God has not given us what we asked. It is easy for us to think we know what is best!
This is an opportunity to remember that Satan is in a battle for our souls. He casts doubt on the usefulness of prayer and even the possibility that prayer has any merit.
Yes, there are many difficulties with which we struggle in our daily prayer life. Why? Because we are weak and prone to:
· Distractions: I’ve mentioned mine, and you undoubtedly have your own.
· Dryness: sometimes when we pray, or sometimes we stop praying because we do not always experience warm feelings and the comfort of God’s nearness.
· Lack of faith: we may not trust God
· Discouragement: nothing seems to have changed, or our prayers seem to have gone unanswered.
· Sloth: here I mean that our spiritual laziness weakens our will to pray.
· Lukewarmness: when we do not love God enough to pray.
There is a form of prayer called contemplative prayer. There we dwell on the ideas and meanings of our prayer, often allowing ourselves to meditate on a verse or some piece of scripture, attempting to learn what God is trying to tell us. At times, this is very rewarding because it gives us a whole new insight on what we have read from the scriptures. There are many contemplatives, nuns, monks, priests, who spend time daily meditating on a piece of scripture. But we must never consider contemplative prayer as the property of only these named religious, because we can engage in and enjoy contemplative prayer too. An example you may have heard mentioned is called lectio divina: focusing on a scriptural verse and being open to the Holy Spirit giving you understanding and a real awareness of what those verses mean to you. It can be a very rewarding experience; one in which you feel the Holy Spirit shedding a whole new understanding of what you have read. One has to be very patient and let God set the tempo. At times, this form of prayer leaves the individual feeling dry and helpless, sometimes useless. But those feelings may serve as a means of purification – getting rid of something in that person’s prayer life that has held him back from being totally open to the will of God.
So what are some activities we should all cultivate to deepen our prayer life? Of primary importance is the frequent reception of Communion and Confession. If there are activities in our daily lives to which we are attached but are unnecessary, and might be called time-wasters and they are clearly worldly, determine to rid yourselves if they draw you away from God’s loving presence. We need to be vigilant in our thoughts, our words and our actions and look with faith to the efficacy of prayer. When the going gets tough, and it will, each of us needs to humble himself and place a childlike trust in God. It takes perseverance, but it is worth it.
I am going to cite a few scriptural references because reflection on them will deepen our understanding and commitment to prayer. In Ps 4:18 we read that God hears the prayer of those who put their trust in him. Ps 84: 1-12 is about serving God in humility. For those of us who have made the most of the world’s possessions, in Mt 6:19-21 and 24, we read, “You cannot serve both God and the world.” I particularly like what Jesus says in Mt 6:25-34 that we should never be anxious about anything because our heavenly Father will take care of us and our needs if we seek first his kingdom and holiness.
Matthew also records that the apostles had great difficulty staying awake and watching, and essentially praying, while Jesus agonized in the Garden before his arrest. Matthew notes these apostles were willing but they gave into the temptation to rest, to sleep.
If we fail to pray and lack in faith, we will be unable to keep Satan and his minions away from us (Mk 9:14-29). Luke certainly underscores the need to persevere in prayer underscoring that faith is necessary for perseverance (Lk 18:1-8). But, Luke also tells us that God will not listen to prideful prayer: our prayers must be said with humility (Lk 18:9-14). Let us never forget that the Holy Spirit helps us to pray and intercedes for us (Rom 8:26-27). Paul, writing in Ephesians 6:10-18, tells us that God arms us against the devil with whose army we are in battle; hence we must pray in the Holy Spirit to persevere and remain always on the lookout for temptation. Jas 4:1-8 is very clear saying Jesus, our everlasting high priest, intercedes for us and saves all to draw near to God through him. Our inclinations to evil lead to sin and to prayer for the wrong things; we must detach ourselves from the world, approach God humbly, actively resist the Devil’s temptations, and single-mindedly draw near to God