Prayer and The Path to Salvation
(Based on a Day of Reflection given at St. John Parish, Seattle, March 1, 1997)
Our Day of Reflection on prayer will be framed by the Gospel we have just heard. It is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Fathers of the Church (the bishops and priests of the first four or five centuries) considered this the greatest parable. The called it the "Gospel in Miniature" because it sums up the Good News of Jesus. We could understand all of Jesus' teaching, our entire Catechism, in its light.
For the Church Fathers this parable referred to mankind as a whole. I would like to consider that interpretation before applying it to us individually in our life of prayer. The younger son represents Adam or humanity in general. He received a great inheritance. In fact, all that he has and is comes from God. In addition God gave him freedom.
In this aspect man is different from the rest of creation. I recognize this when I go to visit my mom and brother on Camano. The first one who comes out to greet me is not them, but our dog Bumper. He barks loudly, jumps up and down, then rolls over so I can scratch his stomach. That dog loves me and I love him. But I recognize a different quality in his love than my mom and brother. Their love springs from a kind of freedom that Bumper does not have. It can be expressed with an incredible creativity of words and gestures. It is based on an inner world of memories and shared experiences. That love can increase in unexpected ways. And, God forbid, it can also be lost.
Now God could have created a world of puppies and it would be beautiful. But he did not. He took a risk. At the pinnacle of his material creation he place man and gave him freedom. Because of that liberty we can love God (and our fellow man) in a way the other animals cannot. If we had obeyed God, we could have constructed a beautiful paradise here on earth. But it is futile to talk about what might have been. The fact is, like the younger son, we took the inheritance and squandered it, as if it were our own. We abused our freedom and that is why we are in the present mess.
By abusing our inheritance we have ruined a perfectly good world. Like the younger son we find ourselves hungry, wishing we could even have some of the pigs' food. And do we not resent the people on whom we spent our inheritance? Where are they now? They won't even give us a call. Hungry, sick, resentful—we are in an awful state.
At this point a remarkable thing happens. The very persona of the younger son changes. He remembers his father's house. He swallows his pride, composes a prayer and begins the journey back home. I am going to let you in on a mystery, a secret many people do not realize about the Prodigal Son. At this point he is Jesus Himself! We have the clue in the words the father pronounces after embracing him, "My son was dead and he has come back to life."
Perhaps it surprises you that I say the Prodigal Son is Jesus. I do not mean that Jesus turned his back on His Father. But he did identify Himself with our sinful nature. As St. Paul says, "For our sakes who was without sin became sin." He took our sins upon himself. This point is vital. Otherwise we have salvation without the Savior. That is impossible. The only way back home to God is through Jesus. As He said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me." (John 14:6)
This point has been lost on our children who have heard the parable of the Prodigal Son so many times. They (and we too if we are honest) have gotten the idea we can save ourselves apart from Jesus and his Cross. That is the fatal error of the elder brother. He thinks the father owes him something because of his good works. No, the only way the Father can allow him into the feast is if he embraces his younger brother.
Perhaps I can put it another way. In Jerusalem near Mount Calvary is the Valley of Gehenna, also called Hades or Hell. If we try skirt Calvary, to avoid the Cross, we will quickly slide into Gehenna. Jesus and his Cross is the only Way to the Father. That is what this time of Lent is about.
As we talk about prayer today, we will ask God to lift us up, remove from our path those obstacles to our return to him. We recognize this is not our own work. It is through Jesus and by the power of his Spirit that we return to the Father. He alone enable us to pray.
Our day of Reflection falls precisely on Saturday of the Second Week of Lent. The assigned Gospel for our Mass was Luke 15, the parable of the Prodigal Son. That parable frames our day and helps us to understand what is involved in prayer.
Prayer is one of the three great penitential practices of lent. The other two are fasting and almsgiving. The three are intimately joined. Before focusing one prayer, allow me a word about the other two practices.
The Catholic Church sets certain basic laws of fasting. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are fast days. We are encouraged to extend the Good Friday fast into Holy Saturday up to the Easter Vigil. The Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence from meat. These are pretty minimal rules, but even they can be challenging. I can easily go without meat, but it seems like on these seven Fridays of Lent, I wake up and what I am thinking about is a Big Mac. Abstinence from meat is small sacrifice we can offer to God as well as a way witnessing to our Catholic faith.
We sometimes think the devil will use big temptations like a million dollars to bring us down. But we need to remember Satan is basically a cheapskate. If he can destroy our soul with something as small as hamburger he will do it. And afterwards give us indigestion to boot.
Fasting of course involves more than observing a minimum set of rules. We need it to counteract the effects of a culture which stresses immediate gratification. Fasting can strengthen our prayer, indeed be itself a form of prayer. The Bible talks about it as a way of receiving forgiveness of sins.
The second penitential practice, almsgiving, is also seen as a kind of prayer, a way to forgiveness. In recent years with our programs of Sacrificial Giving and Stewardship, we have heard a lot more about almsgiving. It is really simple logic. Everything I have and am is from God. I will one day have to give an account to Him of how I have used that inheritance. Almsgiving is not just giving a dollar to a beggar or my tithe to the parish. It is realizing I am a merely a steward of what I have received. The Prodigal Son fell when he said "my inheritance." He was transformed when he recognized its true source. More about this later.
For now we want to focus on the great penitential practice of prayer. Fasting and almsgiving lead to it and are based upon it. But prayer is different that the other two. For one thing, it cannot be so easily measured. I may know that I ate only a bread roll and water on Friday and that on the Fourth Sunday of Lent I will give $100 to Catholic Relief Services. Those things can be measured, but not so with prayer.
In his book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," Pope John Paul was questioned about how he prayed. He told the interviewer that he would need to ask the Holy Spirit. It is after all the Spirit who prays in us (Rom 8:26). As Saint Paul says, we groan within, but prayer itself is a gift of Jesus own Spirit. We cannot measure prayer saying, "I prayed well this morning." It is not "I" who pray, but the Spirit.
What we can do in some measurable way is remove obstacles to prayer. Or as I noted, allow God in Jesus to remove them and bring us with Him back to our Father's house.
I would like to begin with the smallest and most obvious obstacles to prayer. And then proceed to the great obstacle. I do this with an awareness that most of you are not beginners in the spiritual life. Still in some way, as Thomas Merton said, when it comes to prayer all of us are novices. We are right there in the pigpen, longing for the husks, dimly aware that real food exists somewhere else. And we feel closed in, unable to flip up the latch and walk out.
Small obstacles can block our way. The most obvious ones are those which relate to the Ten Commandments. You know, sometimes we experience dryness in our prayer. Nothing seems to happen. We might imagine we are in a "desert experience." Or even in what John of the Cross called the "Dark Night of the Soul." It could be, but we should not jump to that conclusion. It may be we are not obeying one of the commandments.
I remember a cartoon where this guy was asking God to just tell him what to do. He'd be a great missionary in Africa, anything, just let him know. The Voice comes back, "You haven't done the first thing I told you."
When a young man approached Jesus wanting to be his disciples, Jesus did not say to him "Sell all you have and give it to the poor." What he said first was, "You know the Commandments." He then mentions five of the ten. We need to start there. Perhaps, as we shall indicate, the rich young man was too quick in saying "I have kept all these."
Disobedience to the Commandments will block our prayer, our return to the Father. We have a great gift today in understanding the implications of the Commandments for us. It is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is built upon four pillars: the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. Before we can pray, we need to observe the commandments.
The Catechism applies those commandments in pretty specific ways. For example the first says, "I am the Lord your God. You shall not have strange gods before me." It points out a number of false gods. One of them is astrology. According to a poll 20% of Americans rely on their horoscope to guide their lives. Not just uneducated folks. Evidently Ronald and Nancy Reagan employed a professional astrologer during their White House years. The Catechism clearly teaches that astrology is a false god. No doubt, there are some here today who use their horoscope to make daily decisions about finances, love and travel. If that is the case you need to offer it to God, perhaps by placing it in your fireplace. God wants to directly guide your life through prayer.
Now others of you might be thinking, "Well, I am OK. I don't use a horoscope. No false gods in my life." But that is usually not the case. To find out what your idol might be, use this simple test. When you are at rest, free from daily distractions, where does you mind go? For some people it is their investments, for others their next opportunity to drink. It might be some person who has hurt you and your desire show him a thing or two. Or it might be that person you believe holds the key to happiness for you. If only he would notice you…
I remember when I was in high school. There was one girl with beautiful flowing black hair. Everything about her attracted me: the way she talked, dressed, walked. I though about her day and night, imagined myself being with her. If she knew I existed, she showed no positive sign. I could not impress her by being an athlete, so I though I might get her attention intellectually. I bought one of these boxes of a thousand vocabulary cards and set about memorizing them. Twenty cards a day for fifty days. I learned many new words like "ersatz" and "heinous" and could use them in sentences. But it did not work.
Thirty-five years later I am grateful to that girl for the incentive she gave me to improve my vocabulary, but I realize she is not a goddess. In fact, I saw her recently and although she is still pretty, I know she is an ordinary human being who does not need my adoration, but perhaps my understanding.
Young people are especially prone to make idols. We see it in their sports and music heroes. The truth is all of us have in us a deep urge to worship although we misdirect it. For us as adults, we can make a kind of idol of our children. Perhaps when you are free from distraction, the first thing which comes to your mind is that son who is taking a wrong path. You are worried, anxious, agitated. You need to do what Abraham did in last Sunday's first reading. He offered his only child, Isaac, to God. I am not speaking of course about physical, but spiritual sacrifice. After all, that child is not yours. He was made by God. Give him back. When we do, we will experience a tremendous inner freedom and really be able to pray. Perhaps for the first time, we will be able to say the right thing, the right way. We need to give up all idols if we are going to be able to pray.
When Moses brought the Ten Commandments down Mount Sinai, he held two stone tablets in his arms. The first tablet delineates our relation to God. To have no false gods, to respect God's name, to keep holy the Lord's Day, these are our basic duties to the One who made us. Sunday Mass, for example is an obligation we owe to God for creating and redeeming us. It is not something I do if feel like it. But I do not need to tell you those things. We may get into more trouble in terms of our relationship to neighbor which is set forth on the second tablet.
The second tablet contains seven commandments which outline our duties to neighbor. Our love for God, our prayer, must overflow in love for our brother. If not, the prayer will be false. A failure to carry out ones responsibilities to others will seriously damage prayer.
It is interesting, especially for us late 20th century Americans, that the first commandment about love of neighbor is: Honor your father and your mother. This a severe challenge in a culture like ours where parental authority has been so undermined. I contrast our attitude toward parents with the Indian Culture I knew in Peru and Hispanics with whom I am now working here in the Archdiocese. The young Hispanic men I know have come here precisely to be able to help out their parents, to send some money to their mom and dad back in Mexico. When I ask, "When was the last time you spoke to your parents?" the answer is inevitably within the past week. Thinking about their parents and what they expect is the one thing which keeps so many from falling into the temptations here.
In Jesus' time parental authority was even stronger. When he taught his disciples to say "Our Father," it did not evoke a kind of hesitant, almost apologetic figure as it might for us. Rather that father possessed full authority. He expected—and usually received unquestioning obedience. We of course do not want that kind of Father. We would much prefer a Grandfather in Heaven, a laid back old fellow who likes to see young people having a good time. That view has influenced the way we interpret the parable of the Prodigal Son. We see the father as an example of the indulgence we have come to expect. But the point is not that the father is pushover, but that "This Son of Mine was dead and has come back to life." Therefore the Father can extend a totally unexpected embrace and restoration.
What I am saying is that if we are going to begin to understand our relationship with God, we need to live the fourth commandment. When we are children that means obeying our parents. What that means for adolescents and young adults can be particularly challenging. A priest who works as a Campus Minister told me "Honor thy father and mother" is the most difficult commandment for college students. Most parents today do not know how important they are to their children at that stage. And for us who are adults we have some particular duties to our parents I will elaborate on later. And when our parents die, we should visit their grave and offer Mass for them. I learned a lot about this from the Aymara Indians when I was in Peru.
Intimately linked to the fourth commandment is the next one: Thou shalt not kill. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae the Holy Father describes the struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death. Since returning from Peru I have been struck by how relentless the culture of death is. You can see it in the way we use the word "my." I want "my" space, "my" rights. What counts is "my" opinion, "my" decision. It is "my" life and if I want to take drugs or get my belly button pierced that is "my" business. We have even taught our young women to say "It is my body," even when it is not. What does it mean that every year in this country a million and a half women have an abortion carried out on them and their child?
Since I have been back from Peru, I have had so many young women (and some older ones too) come me hurting because they had an abortion. I picture them like a soft white rabbit who placed her paw in a steel trap. In her desperation she gnaws through her own leg and leaves her paw in the trap. But she will always walk crippled.
The steel trap is our culture of death which teaches our young people to say "my." Among the Aymara Indians in Peru there was still a strong sense of "our" community. That sustains a young person in having a sense not only of rights, but responsibilities. Even the way we use our body affects the whole community. The Aymaras obviously did not have a paradise on earth, but they had some important values we could learn from. I will say more about that later. For now it is enough to note that even though our present culture of death is relentless, it is not invincible. Nor does it need to overwhelm us, lead us to despair.
On Feb 10 Archbishop Murphy has given a powerful witness for life—and a challenge to the culture of death. At the Mass for the World Day of Prayer for the Sick he talked about his own life threatening illness. Having leukemia has made him reflect on our society's present call for "physician assisted suicide." Those who want to legalize it, say it will protect the dying from what they fear most: intractable pain, loss of control and dignity, financial stress.
"Yet," said the Archbishop, "assisted suicide is not compassion. True compassion is willingness to share the pain of others, be present and learn from them." It was a powerful statement and challenge to all of us. More and more we are going to be asked to accompany the dying, but always respect life as a gift from God, from the moment of conception to natural death.
And when our own time to die comes, we will be called upon to be stewards of the gift of life. The Archbishop also laid out some criteria for choosing which treatments to receive or not. We do not have to accept every medical treatment, but choose the ones that offer reasonable hope of benefit and do not impose an excessive burden on oneself and others. Though these decisions are painful, and sometimes complex, there is an incalculable difference between responsible stewardship and the deliberate taking of a human life.
A few years ago when I was with Maryknoll, they sent us a sample "living will." It was a simple, straightforward document ascribing oneself to the kind of principles Archbishop Murphy outlines. All of this is part of stewardship and a reminder we must be stewards of our own life. It does not belong to us, but to God. We will have to render accounts to Him for how we have used it.
When we pray, we need to start from the basic principle of our lives as a gift, a blessing. Prayer is our great strength in face of this culture of death.
We can sometimes feel the dignity of human life being attacked on all sides. All of were probably amazed to read that some Scotsman had cloned a sheep. Now what was thought impossible is considered likely: that science will be able to make a genetic duplicate of another human being. President Clinton is so worried about it he has set up a commission to study the ethics of it and has banned the use of tax money experiment in cloning humans.
Something needs to be said here. As morally abhorrent as cloning humans would be, we are right now doing things much worse. The same page of the paper which carried the article on cloning, had one noting that the FDA had approved the "morning after pill." They called it a form of contraception, but it is not. Contraception means "contra" or "against" conception. But the goal of the morning after pill is not to prevent conception, but implantation. The Greeks used to place unwanted babies in the woods to die. We are doing the same by ruining the nest where the tiny human being is meant to grow. To destroy human life at any stage is morally worse than cloning a human being. (Of course the process of cloning, like in vitro fertilization, would inevitably involve the casual destruction many fertilized human eggs.)
We got into all this trouble because the culture of death separates union from procreation. The Bible teaches they are the two intimately joined purposes of human sexuality, of being male and female. Genesis 1:28 says "Be fertile. Multiply." Or as another translation puts it, "have many, many children." And Genesis 2:24 says "The two shall become one flesh." The nuptial embrace, the self-giving in marriage, must be open to children. You cannot separate marital love from procreation. Nor can you separate procreation from marital love. That is why the Catholic Church cannot accept artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization (even if no fertilized egg were destroyed in the process).
God's primordial command: "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth" applies to us today. Some say the earth is now full and we should stop having children. They are wrong. The earth is largely empty and could support much more people. It doesn't seem like it when you drive Seattle's freeways, but even our own area can and (thanks to Boeings) will welcome a lot more folks. Perhaps that scares us, especially the prospect of many immigrant families with larger numbers of children. Like Mother Teresa asked, "Why are you afraid of children?" God wants us to all be fertile, have children. For married couples, it means (if they are capable) to have physical children. For us priests it means to have spiritual children. Single people are also called to have spiritual children.
Regarding spiritual motherhood I think of the director of the Mary Bloom Center in Peru. She is a single woman in her early thirties. By dedicating herself to her studies to be a midwife/obstetrician and by working for the church, she perhaps did not have the same opportunity to meet the right man and marry. But she has spiritual children. I have a picture of her from last Christmas surrounded by children. They adore her not just because she gave them a bread roll and a cup of hot chocolate, but because they know she really loves them. They are her spiritual children—and she makes them better children of their own parents.
That example applies also to infertile couples. God does not want them to go to fertility clinics where they will be submitted to such immoral procedures. No, there are so many children and teenagers who need their attention. They can become spiritual parents.
The question God will ask us on the day of judgment is: "Where are your children?" Sad for the married couple who refuses to have the children God wanted to send them. Sadder still for the man who abandons his wife and family. Saddest of all, the priest who turns his back on his spiritual children.
God has put a tremendous intensity in being male or female because he wants us to know we are to beget children, physical for many, spiritual for all. Pope John Paul says, "We are not only created male and female. We are redeemed as male and female." Our prayer to God involves a deep acceptance of our masculinity or femininity. That great gift of our sexuality is meant to be used only in marriage. Outside of marriage, we revere that gift by abstaining from it casual use. As Saint Paul taught, there is really no such thing as casual sex. If you unite yourself with a prostitute, you become one flesh with her. C.S. Lewis put it bluntly: the choice is either total abstinence or unmitigated monogamy. Given the confusion in our present society it is worth repeating that blunt principle.
The culture of death wants to keep eroding the meaning of our sexuality. Most recently we have read about calls for accepting "same sex marriage." How should we think about this? Our starting point must be Jesus words we will hear the Sunday after next: I have not come to condemn, but to save. We can live in society with people who are objectively sinning, because we believe God wants to save them. Furthermore we acknowledge that we ourselves are sinners. "Judge not lest you be judged" must be our starting point.
Still, we cannot accept "same sex marriage." Perhaps an analogy would help explain why. Suppose I am a salmon fisherman and set up a little table at the Pike Place Market. Then a guy sets up his own to sell rockfish. Fine. However the next day he puts up a sign on his table saying "Salmon for Sale." I am more amused than upset because I do not think anyone will mistake rockfish for salmon. Finally he goes to the city council and asks for a law declaring that rockfish are really salmon. At that point I must fight back. He is trying to legally impose something I just cannot accept.
For us the definition of marriage is non-negotiable. Our parish, our Church, even our civil society depends on it. The Bible itself, from beginning to end, is about the divine nuptials . The opening chapters of Genesis describes the creation of our first parents and the institution of marriage. The final book, the Apocalypse of John, looks forward to the wedding of Jesus the Lamb with his bride, the Church. In between Yahweh says he will rejoice over Israel like a young man rejoices over his bride. And Jesus stuns the Pharisees by calling off the fast, "How can the wedding guests fast when the Groom is with them?" In the Catholic Church we are about marriage or we are about nothing. Each human marriage of a baptized man and woman is a sacrament, a foreshadowing, of the divine one. That, by the way, is the reason women cannot be priests. The priest at the Eucharist represents Jesus the Groom. Only a man can do that. A woman, on the other hand, embodies the receptivity which is the Church. That is why women are usually better "prayers" than us men. As Thomas Merton said, "Before God we are all feminine."
Our young people want this teaching on sexuality and marriage. They are hungry for it. As Pope John Paul II said, "Young people want a beautiful love. Not just girls, but boys as well." If we listen carefully we can hear that behind the nervousness, even the joking. The "beautiful love" they desire is really possible only in the total commitment of marriage and only when that marital self surrender is open to children. The Catechism in its beautiful section on the virtue of chastity speaks about the "complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman."