Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1

(Homily for First Sunday of Lent, Year A)

Message: Man does not live by bread alone by every word that comes from God. The first task of prayer is to listen to God. By listening to him our activity can find its motive, even become pleasurable.

Today is the first of six Sundays of Lent. This year I will address the theme of prayer and spiritual combat. It is a huge topic involving questions like: Why should I pray? What do I do when I pray? How do I connect prayer to my life? That is, how do I find God's will?

I would like to lead into these questions gently - by telling a joke. The joke comes from Fr. James Martin, S.J.: Once a woman asks a priest how she can know God's plan for her year-old son. The priest says to set before him a ten-dollar bill, a bottle of whiskey and a Bible. If he chooses the money he will be a businessman, the whiskey - a bartender, the Bible - a priest. The woman comes back and tells the priest her son picked up all three. "Ah," the priest says, "your son will be a Jesuit." (smile)

There are many jokes about Jesuits. The order has a colorful history, but they have brought one great gift to the world: the guidance of souls, rules for discerning God's will. For this series on Prayer and Spiritual Combat I will use a book by the Jesuit Fr. James Martin on "Spirituality for Real Life."* I will also draw from another Jesuit - our current Holy Father, Pope Francis.

The issue for this week is discernment: Who am I listening to? Am I listening to God - or the devil? As we heard in the Old Testament reading, our first parents listened to the tempter - Satan - and they brought misery on themselves and their children, right down to the present day.

The devil tried to tempt Jesus - even to do something good, to turn a rock into bread. But Jesus responded that a man lives not by bread alone, but by every word from God. Prayer and spiritual combat is about listening to God, recognizing that we need his word more than food itself.

You may remember Dr. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. In the Auschwitz Concentration Camp he observed it was not necessarily the strong and healthy who survived but those who had an inner purpose. Man does not live by bread alone. We find meaning and purpose in prayer.

Pope Francis has pointed out that our problem is "not always an excess of activity, but rather activity undertaken badly, without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable."** I can find myself doing things mechanically, out of a sense of obligation, anxious to get it over with. I may imagine how relieved I will be when some moment arrives and I can finally relax. I am living by bread, not the word of God.

Now, for sure, sometimes we do have to grit our teeth and do what is required. There's a a place for service - for doing one's duty. But there's a big difference between duty and drudgery. Drudgery comes, as Pope Francis observes, when we lack a spirituality that makes activity pleasurable.

Prayer can turn drudgery into pleasure. Once I visited a man whose face conveyed anger and confusion. My first thought was, let's get this over with quick. But I took a breath, tried to see the human person in front of me - a man perhaps close to his moment of death.*** I listened, asked some questions. After a rambling conversation - which did include some prayer - the man surprised me by shyly saying, "I love you." I could only say, "I love you too."

Prayer opens our horizons. As a priest I strive to observe times of prayer - an hour before the Blessed Sacrament in the morning, daily Mass, the rosary, as well as small prayers ("javelins" - I will say more about them during Lent), but often I meet lay people who outdo us priests. One was an elderly lady who took part in our Peru delegation. She had less than perfect English and very little Spanish, but she got up each day at 5 to spend a couple hours in prayer before Mass. She carried a breviary more worn than any priest I know. In moments of waiting, she brought out her rosary. And she connected deeply with others - especially children and people in anguish.

Man does not live by bread alone by every word that comes from God. The first task of prayer is to listen to God. By listening to him our activity can find its motive, even become pleasurable. Not smooth sailing, but a sense of right purpose, following not Satan's way, but God's plan.

Next week I will talk about what to do when one stops to pray. This is vital. In this homily I quoted Pope Francis on how we need a "spirituality" that will permeate our activity, motivate it and even make it pleasurable - a spirituality, a deep union with God, that will prevent the devil from robbing our joy. The pope has identified the central problem and has offered a bold vision. Here's a summary - a program for Lent 2014. With these words I conclude: "The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew." Amen.


*The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life

**Evangelii Gaudium #82

***So often we think we know all about some other person, but what we "know" turns out to be superficial, even erroneous. I had that experience when I read "The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard." I had accepted the narrative that he was the victim of "gay panic" by two rednecks he had this misfortune of running into at a bar. It turns out that the truth about Matthew Shepard and the two men who murdered him is quite different. Stephen Jimenez (himself a gay man who had accepted the media narrative) deserves credit for digging below the surface to expose a more complex - and more disturbing - account of what is happening in our society. And the tragic lives of three young men - and their friends.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Year A homilies for First Sunday of Lent):
The Purpose of Temptation (2011)
The Devil is a Logician (2008)
The Temptation of Sloth (2005)
First Signs of Spring (2002)
Original Sin & Temptation (1999)

Complete List of Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):

2013: Do Not Talk to the Devil
2012: The Covenant with Noah Today
2011: The Purpose of Temptation
2010: Who Is Like God?
2009: Knee Mail
2008: The Devil is a Logician
2007: More Powerful than Satan
2006: Sir, Go on the Other Side
2005: The Temptation of Sloth
2004: Temptation of Spirituality
2003: Lent with C.S. Lewis
2002: First Signs of Spring
2001: How Satan Operates
2000: The Rabbit's Foot
1999: Original Sin & Temptation
1998: Hidden Sin of Gluttony
1997: Jesus' Temptation & Ours

Ash Wednesday homilies:

The Purpose of Lent
Two Cheers for Catholic Guilt
Don't Waste This Crisis
When You Give Alms
Back to the Basics
Dealing With Guilt
Exercise of Holy Desire

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday Homilies

Audio Files of Homilies

Podcasts of homilies (website of my niece, Sara)

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(February 2014)

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