29 July 2007. 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 11, 1-13 Praying Unceasingly
The Gospel today tells about Jesus teaching his disciples to pray. And by baptism, He is teaching us how to pray. He teaches us His way of praying: the Our Father. He teaches us the attitude in prayer: perseverance and persistence. He teaches us never to stop praying, to stop asking, to hope that we would receive an answer from our persistent knocking. He asks us to keep looking, to continue searching and questioning so that someday we will find the answers to our questions. It is through our questioning that we progress. They say that civilization is the result of the question mark. He teaches us that we can also bargain with God as Abraham did for Sodom. Jesus teaches us that we can call on God anytime for help and He will provide for our needs. And He teaches us as St. Paul exhorts the early Christians, “to unceasingly pray.”
To pray unceasingly. Does this mean that we should not go out of this church? Is unceasing prayer dedicating our whole time kneeling, holding our missals and novenas, repeating the beads of the rosary forever? There are times we have to devote time for other things — outside of ‘praying time’. We need to work and to study. We need to attend to our domestic and personal needs.
St. Isaac of Nineveh, also known as Isaac the Syrian, said, “When the Spirit has come to reside in someone, that person cannot stop prayer; for the Spirit prays without ceasing in him. No matter if he is asleep or awake, prayer is going on in his heart all the time. He may be eating or drinking, he may be resting or working — the incense of prayer will ascend spontaneously from his heart. The slightest stirring of his heart is like a voice which sings in silence and in secret to the Invisible.”
Thus, it is the Spirit that we are able to pray. Paul says in his letters to the Galatians (4,6), “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ Thus, the Spirit enables us to pray the prayer of Jesus to His father, “Abba, Father! Our Father!” Paul also reminds the Romans (8, 26), “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groaning that cannot be uttered.”
How do we pray? First, we have to desire what we want to pray for. We must want what we pray, and want it with consuming passion. St. Ignatius insists, “Desire the desire.” There is a longing in our hearts that comes out of our life and influences our decisions. It is a longing for constancy in our relationships, a craving for love and affection, a desire for peace, joy and healing. We must want them so as to enflame our hearts.
How could our hearts desire things with passion? The answer may be surprising: repeat and repeat and repeat. Persistence. Perseverance in prayer. Our Christian Eastern tradition teaches us a prayer like breathing, like a mantra, like a psalm with a refrain. When we repeat, “The Lord is my shepherd”, we remember the whole Psalm. Our constant repetition let our hearts and minds focus to our one and deepest desire, and our entire self becomes the desire itself — the word becomes flesh.
Be honest. When we fall in love, we repeat and repeat what we long for the other to hear: I love you. And the more we constantly rehearse the words, “I love you” in text messages, vocal renditions, non-verbal gestures, we grow to mean it so much. Until, in the repetitions, our hearts begins to become the desire, that the person in love bursts into flame, like a person with an acute fever. William James said, “Religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever.” And when the words — or the name of the person —- become the constant longing of the heart, our entire being becomes the very desire. The whole of us want the person we love.
The same thing with prayer. When we ask, mean it. Repeat it. Mangkulit ka lang sa Diyos. Constantly knock. Constantly seek. Look closely if your desire is pure and true. But even if its imperfect, the Gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit would desire it for us. Eventually, when our desires are completed by the Holy Spirit, it comes, like a burning incense, to the presence of God.