During this month of August, the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary, let us ask of our good Lord to give us a true devotion to the Immaculate Heart of His Mother, Mary! This Sunday is the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time. This weekend I share with you a reflection on the importance of prayer. I encourage you to reflect over this message a few times this week:
The Importance of Prayer: How to ask. The Lord pays special attention to the prayers of His children.
In the Gospel of today‟s Holy Mass (Mt. 15:21-28) St. Matthew tells us that Jesus and His disciples withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. He went from the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the coast of the Mediterranean. There a Gentile woman approached Him. She was a Canaanite, a descendant of the original peoples of Palestine, the land which God had promised to the Jews. She cried out with a loud voice: Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon. Despite the woman‟s cries, the Evangelist relates of the Lord that He did not answer her a word. According to St. Mark, this encounter took place in a house, and it was here that the woman fell down at His feet. (Mark 7:24-25) It seemed as if Our Lord did not pay any attention to her.
Later on, when Jesus and His companions were getting ready to leave the house, St. Matthew writes that the disciples complained to Jesus: Send her away, they said, for she is crying after us. The woman perseveres in her clamor, but the response of Jesus seems curiously cold: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The woman refuses to give up: But she came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me’. What Faith! What humility! What steadfastness there is in her petition!
Jesus uses the image of the Kingdom to explain how He must first preach the Gospel to His Jewish brethren, the chosen people: It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, He says. But the woman, armed with an unshakable Faith, will not take „No‟ for an answer: Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. She enters into the parable and conquers the Heart of Christ, provoking one of the greatest compliments uttered by Our Lord as well as procuring the miracle she requested: O woman, great is your Faith! Be it done for you as you desire. And her daughter was healed instantly. This was the reward for her perseverance.
The noble mothers who appear in the Gospels are always seeking the best for their children. They know how to appeal to Jesus for assistance and favors. On one occasion it was the mother of James and John who approached the Lord to seek advancement for them. Another time it was the widow of Naim who was weeping for the young man who had been her only child. Perhaps it was only an anguished and pleading look into the eyes of Christ that led Him to bring the body back to life… The woman in today‟s Gospel is a perfect model of constancy in prayer, a model intended for all those who tire easily of praying to God.
St. Augustine relates in his Confessions how his mother, St. Monica, never ceased to implore God for the conversion of her son. Nor did she weary of asking good and wise people to speak to her son to dissuade him from his erroneous ways. One day a holy bishop said to her these words by way of consolation: Go your way; as sure as you live, it is impossible that the son of these tears should perish. (St. Augustine, Confessions, 3, 12, 21) Much later, St. Augustine himself was to write: If I did not perish in error, it was due to the daily tears of my mother, who was so full of Faith. (idem. Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance, 20, 53)
God listens in a special way to the prayer of those who know how to love, even though at times it may appear that He is deaf to the entreaty. He wants our Faith to become more strong, our Hope to become more profound, our Love to become more trusting. He wants everyone to have the desire and the humility that a good mother has.
Characteristics of prayer: perseverance, Faith and humility. Seeking the help of others to join in our prayers.
The prayer of petition plays an important role in the life of men and women. Although the Lord provides countless blessings without our ever asking for them, He has set aside many graces the granting of which will depend upon our personal prayer, or upon the prayers of others who are close to Him. St. Thomas teaches that our petitions do not change the Divine Will, but instead win for us what has already been set aside for us if we should ask. (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, 2-2, q. 83, a. 2) As a result, we should petition the Lord without ceasing. Who knows how many blessings are waiting for us if only we ask for them? We should ask others to pray for the fervent intentions we have in our hearts, to pray for all the blessings we need and can receive from the Lord. St. Thomas says that this is one of the reasons why Jesus did not reply immediately to the Canaanite woman. He wanted the disciples to intercede for her. In this way He shows us the importance of the intercession of the saints. (idem., Catena Aurea, vol. II, p. 338) The Gentile woman wanted an extraordinary miracle. That required an extraordinary kind of prayer, accompanied by enormous Faith and deep humility.
Perseverance is a prerequisite to all petition - They ought always to pray and not lose heart (Luke 18:1); this was Christ‟s teaching. Persevere in prayer. Persevere, even when your efforts seem sterile. Prayer is always fruitful. (J. Escriva, The Way, 101) The prayer of the Canaanite woman was successful from the very first moment. Jesus was only waiting for her to prepare her heart to receive the great blessing she asked for.
We have to petition with Faith. Faith nurtures prayer, and prayer, as it grows, leads to firmness in Faith. (St. Augustine, Homily 115) Both are intimately united. This woman had a great Faith: She shows her belief in the Divinity of Christ when she calls Him Lord. She shows her belief in the humanity of Christ when she calls Him Son of David. The woman asks for nothing based on her merits. She only invokes the mercy of God by saying: ‘Have mercy on me’. And she doesn’t ask for mercy for her daughter, but mercy for herself, because her daughter’s pain is truly her pain. In order to win Christ’s compassion she gives a full description of the suffering when she states: ‘my daughter is severely possessed by a demon’. From these words the Divine Doctor learns about her ailment, its gravity and its origin - the gravity when she says ‘severely possessed’; the origin at the words ‘by a demon’. (St. Thomas, Catena Aurea, vol. II, pp. 336-337)
Perseverance in prayer comes from a life of Faith, of confidence that Jesus is always listening to us. This Faith leads us to a complete abandonment into the hands of God. Tell Him: Lord, I want nothing other than what You want. Even those things I am asking You for at present, if they take me an inch away from Your Will, don’t give them to me. (J. Escriva, The Forge, 512) I want only what You want, because it is what You want.
Above any other petition, asking for the needs of our souls. Asking for material needs insofar as they bring us closer to God.
The Canaanite woman teaches us another characteristic of true prayer besides perseverance. She teaches us the importance of humility. Prayer can rise up only from a humble and repentant heart: A humble and contrite heart, O God, thou will not despise. (Ps. 50:19) God resists the proud and gives His grace to the humble (cf. 1 Pet. 5:5; Jas. 4:6), to the person who sees himself as servus pauper et humilis. (cf. Divine Office, Hymn for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi)
The Lord wants us to ask Him for many things. First of all, we should ask for what refers to our souls since the sicknesses they can contract are severe. It is our souls Our Lord mainly wants to cure of these ailments. If He works to cure the body, He has done so for the sake of the soul. (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on St. Matthew’s Gospel, 14, 3) It can happen that as soon as we contract a physical malady, we will leave no stone unturned until we are free of its effects. On the other hand, when the sickness affects the soul we respond with vacillation and delay… We make the primary secondary and the secondary primary. We treat the symptoms and not the disease. (ibid.) What our souls can really use are the grace to fight against our defects, more rectitude of intention in our work, perseverance in our vocation, light to receive more fruit from Holy Communion, a more refined sense of charity, docility in spiritual direction and more apostolic zeal… Our Lord also wants us to ask for other things we need, such as help to recover after a small defeat; employment, if we need a job; good health… And all of these we seek insofar as they will lead us to love God more. We don‟t want anything that will take us away from what is really important - to be always united to Christ.
Jesus is most pleased when we pray for others. St. John Chrysostom teaches: Necessity obliges us to pray for ourselves. Fraternal charity obliges us to pray for others. God finds the prayer motivated by charity to be more meritorious than the prayer motivated by necessity. (idem., Catena Aurea, vol. I, p. 354)
We should pray for all those in our families and for everyone the Lord has put by our side. Parents have a special obligation to pray for their children, especially if they have fallen away from the Faith. Parents should also pray for those children who have been called to a life in His service. We should accompany our prayers with works so that God will hear our pleas more promptly - by offering, for example, hours of work or study for a particular intention in question, by accepting God‟s Will in suffering or in the face of contradictions and by practicing charity and mercy at every opportunity.
Christians in all times have felt moved to present their petitions through holy intercessors, through each person‟s Guardian Angel, and through the special mediation of Our Blessed Mother, Holy Mary. St. Bernard says that our Advocate rose to Heaven, where she could act on behalf of our salvation as Mother of the Judge and Mother of Mercy. (St. Bernard, Sermon on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1, 1) We should never fail to go to Our Lady each day, since so much depends on her. (From: In Conversation with God by Francis Fernandez) Through the intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, St. Joseph and St. Columbkill, may God grant us the grace of a faithful and prayerful interior life! In Christ through Mary, Fr. Kasel