Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 5

(Homily for Fifth Sunday of Lent - Year A)

Message: I invite you to follow Saint Martha's example. As a good Jew, she has a structure, a discipline of prayer, but she shows the power of short javelin-like prayers.

Today is the fifth and final Sunday before Holy Week. This Lent I have been addressing the theme of prayer and spiritual combat. I'd like to sum up the main points so far:

First, we need prayer in order to know God's will and to resist the devil.

Second, God can speak to us through all our faculties - our minds, our consciences, our hearts - and even through use of our imagination - especially to enter scenes from Jesus' life.

Third, distractions are inevitable. When they bombard us, we should try to gently refocus. Persistent, recurring distractions might indicate we should pray for someone or to pray for help because of some temptation.

Four, distractions and dryness in prayer point to the immensity within us that only God can fill.

Five, we all need a structure, a discipline of prayer that can help carry us through times of dryness.

Six, material elements can help us in prayer - for example, the use of a crucifix or a sacred image.

Well, you know that seven is the perfect number, so I going to round this out with a seventh recommendation: Javelins. That is the theme for this week. You have probably seen a strong young man with a javelin. It seems he could hurl it up to heaven. In the Bible we read that Joshua held a javelin as he lead the Conquest. (8:18) Early Christians practiced javelin prayers - short pleas sent up during the day. We can see some striking examples in today's Gospel.

The Gospel begins with Martha and Mary sending word to Jesus, "Master, the one you love is ill." A plea, a simple, well-aimed prayer.

Now, I want to stop a moment. Before looking at other short prayers, I want to say that they may not be for everyone. Mary stayed home. She preferred to wait for Jesus, to rely on his timing and then listen to him when he comes. That is beautiful and if you are that kind of peaceful, patient person, I deeply admire you, even envy you. Use your gift of contemplation for the benefit of the entire Church.

But if God has given you a more voluble and talkative mind, well, Martha's way of prayer will attract you. She wears her heart on her sleeve. You know exactly what she's thinking and feeling. Martha would have loved Facebook. But what she has to say is more serious than the typical Facebook post. "Lord, if you would have been here, my brother would not have died." When you pray, it's always best to to express what you are feeling. Anyway, you can't hide things from God. Those feelings can become javelin prayers. "Lord, I am sinking." Or "Please, do not let this happen to me." Or, "Jesus, you can do this for him...Whatever you ask, the Father will do."

Jesus might respond by reminding you what you know deep down, as he does with Martha. As a good Jew she knows about the resurrection on the last day. But Jesus may give a more personal message, "I am...I am the resurrection."

Short prayers can have a powerful effect, as we see in today's Gospel. And Jesus himself models the javelin prayer, "Father, I thank you," he says. John makes explicit that Jesus says that prayer for our sake - as an example to follow.

I mentioned to you that early Christians offered these small javelin prayers. they took Paul's words seriously: "Pray without ceasing." So besides set prayer times, they would offer little prayers during the day: I thank you, Lord. Help me. I trust you. Maranatha, come quickly, Lord. Send your Spirit.

The Scrutinies - the Lenten exorcisms - that come from the early Church contain brief prayers. In today's Third Scrutiny we will hear pleas like, "Free them...Rescue them..."

This tradition of brief prayers continued in the Church. In the seventeenth century, a lay Carmelite known as Brother Lawrence wrote a book called The Practice of the Presence of God. He comments on how God wants these short prayers:

�God does not ask much of us," writes Brother Lawrence, "merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think."

Now, Brother Lawrence is not saying we do not need fixed prayer times. Besides daily Mass he observed blocks of prayer (mainly the Psalms) about every three hours - and then getting out of bed in the middle of the night to pray. I can't recommend that but if I wake up and simply cannot get back to sleep, I take it as a sign that the Lord wants me to get up and pray.

Some of my most fruitful prayers (from a human point of view) have been those unscheduled blocks of time - and the javelin prayers have brought me a lot of peace.

Before I give you the impression that I am some kind of saint or mystic, let me admit that much, if not most, of my prayer is distracted and I often experience dryness. I take comfort from Paul's word that we do not know how to pray and that the Holy Spirit prays within us - in "inexpressible groanings." (Rom 8:26)

Next week I will state the purpose of prayer. I will do it briefly because it will be Palm Sunday. What I say, at first might surprise you. But that's next week - the beginning of Holy Week.

For today I invite you to follow Saint Martha's example. As a good Jew, she has a structure, a discipline of prayer, but she also shows the power of short javelin-like prayers. This is the seventh of my recommendations for prayer. If you don't remember the other six, do not worry. I have them in the bulletin - and you can even find online recordings of my homilies!

We will hear javelin-like prayers in the Scrutiny. And I encourage you today to use the three main ones: "Help me, Lord." "Jesus, I trust in you." and "Thank you, Lord." It's really what we have in today's Psalm: "Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice." Amen.

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Spanish Version

From Archives (Year A Homilies for Fifth Sunday of Lent):

Best Lent Ever Week 5: If You Died Today (2017)
Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 5 (2014)
Revive (2011)
Overcoming Power of Death (2008)
Joining Body with Soul (2005)
He Was Buried (2002)
On Confession and Cremation (1999)

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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