Homily, 3rd Sunday of Advent, Cycle B 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA
My favorite story from St. Therese of Lisieux, who was a Carmelite nun known as the "Little Flower", is of her first experience in the novitiate when she joined the Convent. When they arrived, all the young nuns would gather together, and the novice master would lead them in the divine office or the rosary. This was their first experience in prayer, public prayer and vocal prayer, and it was designed to train them for the more advanced stages of prayer, meditation and contemplation.
Well, one day the novice master interviewed each of the nuns about what they did during their free time, of which they were given a little each day. St. Therese said, "well, I find a spot between my bed and the window, and I just pull the curtains around me to be alone, and then I just think." The novice master asked, "what do you think about?" She replied, "Well, I think about God, the angels, the saints, heaven, stuff like that." And the novice master had to laugh, because here this young novice was already advancing into the deeper forms of prayer without knowing it. She was engaged in contemplation, which for her, it seemed, came almost naturally.
In today's Second Reading, Saint Paul tells us, “Rejoice Always. Pray without ceasing.” Is it possible to actually do this? To pray without ceasing, to always be filled with the joy of the Lord? As last week, in the Gospel today we see John the Baptist in the desert, preparing the way of the Lord, making “straight the way of the Lord.” What is the “way of the Lord”? Nothing less than prayer, a prayer of friendship and union with the Lord.
Jesus would also tell his apostles, "Come by yourselves to an out-of-the-way place and rest a little." Just as St. Therese who sought a place to be alone. And in several other places throughout the Gospels (CCC 2602), we see Jesus seeking a deserted place like John the Baptist before him. Why? So that he might pray. Sometimes he would spend entire nights in prayer before his heavenly Father.
So, by this example, Jesus teaches us the importance of making time for prayer, of seeking a time and place to be alone with our Lord, to pray without ceasing. And all Christians are called to this way of prayer. In our own experience, however, we believe this to be difficult. We want to find a time and place to pray, but we find ourselves constantly interrupted by the demands of the world: our family duties, our work, the tasks of daily life.
This would happen to Jesus as well, for he was often interrupted. The people heard about where he was going and hastened to get there before he did, so that when Jesus arrived with his apostles, a vast crowd was waiting for him. Though he was weary, he pitied them and began to teach them. And I think this experience is common in our everyday life. Like Jesus who was looking for a place to rest and pray, we often find that the world interrupts us and keeps us from entering into that deeper communion with our Lord which we know we need.
So, I was thinking about St. Therese and what she would do, what advice would she give to those of us caught up in the midst of the world who find it hard to find a time and place to pray, and it occurred to me that perhaps we ought to try a different approach. Rather than let the world interrupt our time in prayer, how about interrupting the world with prayer? How about interrupting our daily duties and obligations with a brief and heartfelt prayer to our Lord?
The catechism defines prayer in this way (CCC 2559), "prayer is the raising of one's heart and mind to God." And there is no reason why we cannot do that in the midst of our everyday life: in the home, in the workplace, on the road, in the middle of our recreation and relaxation. In all these places it takes but a simple decision to raise our heart and mind to the Lord.
And there is a very simple way to do this, a way that has been with us from the very ancient traditions of the Church, (CCC 2667) it's called the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The monks in ancient times, especially those in the East, would repeat this prayer throughout the day ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner") and they found it a perfect way to "raise their heart and mind to God" in the midst of their daily duties.
This prayer is particularly appropriate because of the many truths it contains. The catechism says, (CCC 2664), "There is no other way of Christian prayer than Christ. Whether our prayer is communal or personal, vocal or interior, it has access to the Father only if we pray 'in the name' of Jesus." And it goes on, (CCC 2666), "The name 'Jesus' contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray 'Jesus' is to invoke him and call him within us." (CCC 2668), "The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always... This prayer is possible at all times because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus."
This simple prayer is beneficial because it leads to more advanced forms of prayer, especially that of contemplative prayer. (CCC 2709) St. Teresa of Avila, another great Carmelite, defines contemplative prayer in this way: "Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us."
If we pray without ceasing, we invite the Lord to be a part of our daily lives, so that he might share in our joys and sorrows, our work and hardships, everything. And when someone knows us that well, what do we call them? A friend. And that's what contemplative prayer is: it is not a form of prayer reserved only for the saints or those in convents, all of us are called to this deep friendship with our Lord.
And the catechism goes on about contemplative prayer: (CCC 2710), "One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has time: one makes time for the Lord, with firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter. One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, emotional state. The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith."
You see? It is possible to pray without ceasing, for the one thing the world cannot enter without permission is the heart. And if you reserve a place in your heart for the Lord, he will always be with you and you will always experience his presence. Saint Teresa of Avila said, “If you wish to speak with your Father and enjoy His company, you do not have to go to heaven... you need no wings to go in search of Him but only to find a place where you can be alone and look upon Him present within yourself.” (Way, p28)
There's a very beautiful opera called "Dialogues des Carmelites" (Poulenc), which is based on a novel, which is based on the true story of a group of Carmelite nuns who were martyred during the French Revolution. During the opera, the Prioress says to one of the novices, "We are only a house of prayer! Prayer provides the only reason for our existence. Whoever doubts the force of prayer must regard us all as impostors and parasites. If faith in God is universal, should the same not be true of faith in prayer? And so each and every prayer -- even the prayer of a little shepherd who tends his flock -- is really the prayer of all mankind. And what the little shepherd does from time to time, as his heart prompts him, all of us must do day and night."
And I think her words apply to all of us: day and night, our thoughts ought to turn to the Lord, so that, through contemplation, we might deepen our friendship with him. For one day, when all the trials of this life are over, we will meet him face to face, and only then will we find the place of eternal rest we seek, the Kingdom of Heaven.
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