Fruitful Prayer: Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent
In the First Reading we read the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared.” This could be the cry of many people who come to me, in Confession and in other pastoral setting, anxious about their prayer life. They struggle with prayer. They struggle “hearing” God. They wait for a time when their ears will be open and they can hear God clearly.
There are four areas where one can examine if they want to delve deeper into their prayer life:
- A Quiet Space
- External and Internal Distractions
- Grit which can be defined as patience combined with tenacity
A Quiet Space
In his book Sacred Pathways, Gary Thomas writes that,
Gethsemane is often identified in the stories about the passion. But in John 18:1-2, we read the line “now Judas is who betrayed him new the place because Jesus had often met there with his disciples.” Obviously Gethsemane was a place where Jesus often went to spend time away with his friends . It was also a place where he liked to spend time away from his friends in order to commune with his Father. When Jesus wanted to meet with his Father, he went to a place that was familiar, a place that was comfortable. It was a sacred place, a sacred space.
Thomas asks a question, “Where is your Gethsemane?” For some of you it may be a garden or perhaps a place in a local forest. Others may prefer a church or a sanctuary. Still others may find prayer with a musical instrument in your hands. I know that for many people in the Philadelphia area walking along the beach at the Jersey shore or spending times in the woods up in the Pocono Mountains is a sacred place. We are incarnational beings. Some type of physical place will often be necessary if our prayer is going to be fruitful.
External and internal distractions
In his book, Listening To God’s Whispers, Abbot Dominic Rossi makes the point that, in prayer, there is a difference between hearing and listening. “In order to listen, one has to enter into the other person’s world.“ In terms of trying to discern God‘s voice, we have to learn the art of listening in the silence. Silence can be a rare commodity today. We are surrounded by noise. I wrote about this topic in an earlier post of mine entitled, Unplugging Sundays.
Abbot Rossi mentions the difficulties associated with two types of distractions. We must discard the daily, external distractions that surround us. We must also discard the internal distraction that can be an obstacle to prayer. That distraction is the mindset that we have about God. We want to control God. We want to put God in a box. God will not be controlled by our preconceived notions about Him. We have to recognize this if we are going to progress in our prayer.
In their book Prayer and Temperament, Chester Michael and Marie Norrisey talk about four psychological functions that have an impact on prayer:
When talking about their struggles with prayer, people often refer to one or several of these particular human functions. Here’s the problem. Michael and Norrisey say that these four functions operate quite differently when relating to the transcendental world than when relating to the obvious physical world around us. In fact, Michael and Norrisey have found that these functions often operate in an opposite fashion when dealing with God and transcendence.
This can lead to confusion in prayer. We want to go to our comfort zone. We wish to deal with God within the function that is most comfortable to us. It is not uncommon for God to use precisely what we find most difficult to make his presence known in his most authentic way. Michael and Norrisey refer to it as the inferior function. It has a mysterious quality because of his unconscious content. People often tend to shy away from it. It’s troublesome. It’s uncomfortable. It is unfamiliar. It’s hard. Therefore we tend to neglect it.
Grit = Patience and Tenacity
Gary Thomas notes something at the end of Sacred Pathways. In order for the secret garden of our soul to bear good fruit, it has to be tended on a regular basis. Tending a garden is not exciting. Tending a garden is not fun. It involves vigilance. It involves pulling up weeds on a regular basis. It involves forcing yourself into a routine of going outside in all kinds of weather and checking out the garden – even at times when it is not pleasant or convenient. It is the same with prayer. People want it to be easy. They give up too quickly when prayer is difficult or seems dry. A key element of a fruitful prayer life is to simply stick to it over time. The Book of James says that we must “..be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient.”
Today’s Second Reading from James talks about having patience with prayer:
Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Thomas offers a practical checklist about tending the secret garden. Begin by evaluating your quiet time.
- Where is your Gethsemane?
- What do you do currently in terms of quiet time? How well is it working?
- Does the idea of an expanded or different quiet time during the day excite you, threaten you, bore you?
- Does the idea of an expanded or different quiet time during the day make you feel guilty?
- Do your quiet times build on each other?
- Is your quiet time beginning to feel like more of a burden than a blessing?