The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Grace in the wilderness

"Persevere in prayer. Persevere, even when
your efforts seem sterile. Prayer is always fruitful."
St. Josemaria Escriva

From Princess Stand in the Rain

Have faith.

We hear that statement often enough, but what does it really mean? Today's Mass readings (Jeremiah 31:1-7; Matthew 15:21-28) offer some sure-footed guidance.

In the first reading, God promises to restore and rebuild ancient Israel after the Babylonian exile, to deliver them from captivity and make them joyful and fruitful again in their own land. As we know, God kept that promise. Still, the period of difficulty that the Israelites endured served a purpose--it led them to turn their hearts toward God, to pray for deliverance with trust in God's providence, with humility, and with perseverance. That's faith--and the exile experience helped sharpen its focus.

Jeremiah alludes to the experience of the exiles' ancestors, who were led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land. They spent 40 years journeying through the desert, an experience God used to test and sharpen their faith. Ultimately, it is Jesus--the new Moses--who fulfills the promise of deliverance and entry into the Promised Land of the Heavenly Kingdom.

United with Christ, we too have our deserts to cross, our exile experiences to endure, therefore providing the opportunity for faith to be tested and purified. As you will recall, before he began his ministry, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days to be tempted by Satan. He persevered, sustained by the Father who sent him.

It's not something we like to hear, but Scripture's consistent message is that the fallen human condition necessarily involves hardship, failure, and suffering. And yet, there is something about such universal experiences that prompt us deep within to cry out to God in a way we likely would rarely consider if life were always a bed of roses. The good news is that God joins us in the briar patch, so to speak, to lead us out. Yes, he could remove the briar patch from our path altogether, but he won't. To do that, he would have to over-ride humanity's greatest God-given attribute--the free will which we as a race so often misdirect and thereby create the conditions under which so many suffer. Instead, in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God takes on our human flesh, allows himself to be pierced by the very same thorns that wound us, and says, "Follow me. I am with you always." In this way, the very effects of sin are transformed by God into the means of redemption.

Along the way, he provides something we cannot see or feel--the grace that fuels faith, trust, humility, and perseverance. When we turn to God in the midst of our own exiles and desert journeys, we discover, as St. Paul says, that "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). In today's first reading (from the New American Bible), we are told that the exiles "have found favor in the desert" (Jeremiah 31:2). I prefer the translation from the Revised Standard Version: "found grace in the wilderness." In the wilderness of hardship, failure, and suffering, God's people find the grace to sustain them along the journey to the promised land.

How? Prayer. Simple, sincere, steadfast prayer. The Canaanite woman in today's Gospel passage provides the perfect example. She cries out to Jesus with faith, trust, humility, and perseverance. She is straightforward, and she is persistent. Jesus not only grants her request, but praises this pagan woman for her faith--obviously meant as a "teaching moment" for the "chosen" people who failed to display such attributes. She prays, and is answered--not through merit, but by faith.

This is the "grace in the wilderness" of which Jeremiah speaks. May we all find such grace; it's ours for the asking, even if it's a simple, "Lord, help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). It is faith that saves, and the grace of prayer provides it. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8).

Our prayer, then, must coincide with the very last sentence in the Bible: "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all" (Revelation 22:21) who journey through the wilderness of this life. As St. Benedict says, "may he lead us all together to everlasting life."

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