Prayer isn’t always easy, and it’s not always nice

The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost 

Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal

This week, some of us met for our monthly “meditation class” on Tuesday morning, in this Cathedral in the chapel of the Reserved Sacrament.  It’s a chance to share an experience of meditation, not a lecture.  I look forward to it.  Afterwards, one of the participants, someone who knows that I trained at the Ignatian Centre in Montreal, asked me “What is the Ignatian teaching about prayer?”

And—as one of my friends remarked this same week, in a completely different context, “There are many things to be said. I don’t want to make an exhaustive list.”

But this week’s readings do offer a chance to make a few observations about prayer, what it is, and where we can get a toehold onto what I might call the prayer path.

We might start with last week’s sermon, Ralph Leavitt’s Thanksgiving message about gratitude.

Both the Ignatians and the Benedictines teach  that gratitude is the start of prayer. Why?  Well, among other things, it is impossible to be grateful all by yourself.  Gratitude opens the heart to a relationship, and not a relationship of fear or judgment or mistrust, but a bond of receptivity and friendship, to the possibility of receiving good things.

Martha Randy, a translator who lives on the West Island, has described how her daily gratitude practice completely transformed her life, after she found herself increasingly angry about US politics under Donald Trump.  She has even said that she is grateful to him for being the cause of her taking up a gratitude practice to preserve her equilibrium! She has been posting daily updates on Facebook for several years.

It was tempting, on Tuesday, to hold forth about what Ignatius taught. I said that he was something of a magpie, a collector of attractive or quirky things that caught his attention, and his famous Exercises are from the point of view of “technique” a collection of many readings and experiences and traditional methods.

What holds his teaching together is the basic principle that prayer does not start with us. It leads us into deeper and deeper relationship with Christ, because it begins and is rooted in God’s desire to be known by us. For God is the One who already knows and loves us. So prayer isn’t one more thing to do, not something on that endless list. When Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” [John 14:6] he was inviting his followers to grow more and more conscious of a relationship that is continuous, life-giving, and loving.

Luke’s Gospel in particular contains many glimpses of Jesus at prayer, modelling his practice of reconnecting again and again with the God he called Father.

If you have been praying for a while, you might have experienced the wisdom of the saying, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”  There are times in life to shift gears, prayer-wise.

This morning’s scriptures demonstrate several different ways that prayer can take shape.

The psalmist in Psalm 121 … often read during funeral services… feeds on God’s promise to be an unfailing refuge and sustainer. “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”

The Psalms are wonderfully rich in their variety, and in their ability to articulate the whole range of human feelings and possible relationships with God including anger and fear and despair, as well as awe and trust and love and praise. Recited or sung, these ancient prayers—perhaps the oldest part of the Bible—have fed the daily devotions of both Jews and Christians for millennia. Jesus knew and quoted the Psalter. They form the beating heart of the Daily Office.

And the Psalms model for us the need for authenticity.  Make no mistake—prayer is a come-as-you-are party. A precious and lifegiving (if sometimes scary) opportunity to settle into our own truth. To lay aside who we want to be and actually “turn up” is a gift we can bring, paradoxically, in our cathedral style formal worship, because we know what is going to happen during this time. We know where we will sit and stand, or we can follow along with the people around us, our bodies settle into this rhythm, we are given words to say and hymns to sing, time to be silent and times to participate.  If we come here a few times, or if we have been to catholic or Anglican services before, we can relax into a known structure.  This might seem to be constricting or limiting but, actually, the structure itself is liberating. Because we know what to expect, we’re free to have the thoughts we think and the feelings we feel.

All we need to do is to notice them.

That might need to be learned.

I was a real bookworm, as a child and adolescent, and spent my days in a sort of myopic funk. When I first started birdwatching, I missed a lot of birds because I was staring hard at  where I expected to find them.  I had to learn to soften my focus, widen my gaze, to catch the little movements off to the edge, above or below where I had thought they would be.

So it is with prayer (and with life).  One extraordinary spiritual director I talked with on retreat would simply ask, quietly, “what did you notice?”

If this sounds, well, contemplative, it’s only one possibility in the prayer world.

Look at Jacob’s experience in Genesis. He is wrestling, just as he did in the womb before his birth. Whether his physical struggle with the divine being (or God) is intended to be understood as a metaphor, it is certainly an active engagement, it takes every bit of his strength. He does not give up until he receives the blessing that God desires for him. He is given a new name—and he goes forward into life with that limp!

Prayer isn’t always easy, and it’s not always nice.

Consider now the widow in Luke’s Gospel.  The judge, operating under Roman law and unjust at that, wants nothing to do with her case.  She is a foreigner (according to at least one commentator), penniless, a widow, and a relentless pest.  Four strikes against her. The translation given in the NRSV describing the judge’s response is, in fact, a milder version of the original.  When he says he will hear her case it is actually “lest she continue coming and end by doing violence to me.”  That’s how angry she was. Aren’t there times when we, too, feel we need to storm heaven to have justice on earth, near or far?

Those who are struggling for justice—who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are struggling not simply to be individually right with God, but to participate in right relationships in social and political and, yes, church structures all of which are imperfect.

Jesus frames this parable within the optic of the end times, foreseeing his coming passion and the cataclysm ahead for his followers and their world.

This is a teaching we need today, don’t we?

And here it is.  Scripture given to us, as scripture itself says (in 2 Timothy 3:17) “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”

Let us pray, joyfully and confidently, that God will continue to equip us, and to lead each of us to know and follow the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Thanks be to God!  Amen


The Scriptures appointed for this week are Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, and Luke 18:1-8.

Last week’s Thanksgiving service. The sermon, offered by the Venerable Ralph Leavitt, begins at 21.19.

David Steindl-Rast’s work on gratitude has received enormous attention.  Here’s an interview with him.

Ignatian prayer resources may be found here.

Martha Randy’s facebook gratitude entries are here.

The illustration is “Vision of the Sermon” (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) by Paul Gauguin. “This painting, which dates from 1888 and was made in Pont-Aven, Brittany, is one of Gauguin’s most famous works. The Breton women, dressed in distinctive regional costume, have just listened to a sermon based on a passage from the Bible. Genesis (32:22-32) relates the story of Jacob, who, after fording the river Jabbok with his family, spent a whole night wrestling with a mysterious angel. In a letter the artist wrote to Van Gogh he said ‘For me the landscape and the fight only exist in the imagination of the people praying after the sermon’.”

Post a comment