The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ordinary prayer and faith

"Christina's World," Andrew Wyeth, 1948

“Ask and you will receive,” Jesus tells his disciples (John 16:24). But he also says that we are to ask in accordance with his will: “If you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.”

This week has marked the resumption of Ordinary Time in the liturgical year of the Church. After 40 days of Lent and 50 days of Easter, we are now in the seventh week of ordinary time, picking up where we left off a few months ago. The anticipation of Advent, the festivity of Christmas, the intensity of Lent, and the jubilation of Easter are all behind us for another year. Now we are embarking on a long stretch (six months) during which we are called (for the most part) to find Christ in the day-to-day, unremarkable, ordinariness of human living.

It seems altogether appropriate, then, that the week began with Monday’s Gospel reading (Mark 9:14-29) pointing us toward the importance of prayer and faith in our daily lives. Although it may be argued, on one level, that what Jesus does in this particular passage—healing a boy by expelling the demon tormenting him—is anything but ordinary, the overall message is one of entrusting everything to God through prayer and faith. After all, such demons as doubt, despair, spiritual idleness, and so many others are daily companions, tempting us to lose all hope in a God who seems absent or oblivious, as we aimlessly flail away, seemingly at the mercy of life’s frustrations and disappointments.

Such is the scene at the outset of this Gospel passage. Things are out of control. A man has brought his possessed son to Jesus’ disciples to be healed. However, whatever they try, nothing works. A fierce argument breaks out. This is the setting into which Jesus appears. After finding out what all the commotion is about, Jesus expresses exasperation with all of them. “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?”

But Jesus does not throw up his hands and simply walk away. “Bring [the boy] to me,” he says. When this is done, the spirit possessing him flings the boy into convulsions. His father says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Once again, Jesus is taken aback. “If you can!” he retorts. “Everything is possible to one who has faith.” This is the key moment upon which the whole event turns. The father acknowledges his lack of faith while at the same time expressing an earnest desire for more faith. In other words, he prays.

“I do believe, help my unbelief!” he says.

Jesus then expels the unclean spirit. Order is restored from chaos. 

Later, when Jesus is alone with his disciples, they ask him why they were not able to do what he did. “This kind can only come out through prayer,” he responds. 

Prayer expresses our faith. Other things do, too (such as works of mercy), but prayer is foremost because it acknowledges our need to be in right relationship with God. It is our relationship with God. Prayer is God’s invitation to dedicate our time and being to a fuller appreciation of the divine so that our vision broadens and our hearts expand with Love. It is a lifelong rhythm of listening and responding to God’s call for conversion of heart—personally and communally.

Prayer is not a means by which we attempt to persuade God to give us this or that, or to do this or that. It is open, honest, full-hearted conversation with a God who loves us beyond measure, so that we may become our true selves in the divine image. We pray to be changed into who God wishes us to be—not orphans, but children. 

Jesus instructs us to pray always (Luke 18:1) so as not to lose heart. Many times throughout the gospels, after expelling a demon or healing someone, his parting words are: “Your faith has saved you.” Wealth, honor, health, success, and so many other things may all be well and good. As dutiful Christians, we may strive for perfection to the point of exhaustion. But in the end, it is our faith that saves us—faith in the unfathomable and ineffable mystery of God’s indisputable and merciful presence in our lives despite what the world’s values and circumstances seem to suggest. After all, as the Letter to the Hebrews famously states: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).

So, we must pray as did the apostles, “Lord, increase our faith!”, or as did the possessed boy’s father: “I do believe; help my unbelief!” These are honest expressions of acknowledged incompleteness. In them, we state our desire to be freed from whatever holds us back from God. Even when we are in the grips of the deepest doubt, we can confidently pray for more faith.

“Ask and you will receive,” Jesus says. True faith is a gift that cannot be refused to the one who prays for it. In this way, we find Christ in the day-to-day, unremarkable, ordinariness of human living. “Remember,” Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

So, let us pray--this day and every day, all day and for all days. Everything is possible to one who has faith--even grasping what seems just beyond our reach.

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