Opening the Word: Persistence in prayer

As I prepared to write this column, I learned that Marist Father Thomas Dubay, one of the finest spiritual writers of our time, had just died. I have benefited greatly from his books, especially his profound works on prayer. In fact, I planned to quote him in this column since today’s readings speak of prayer, especially about prayers of petition. 

“In sincere prayer we turn our puny selves to the supreme Other,” Father Dubay stated bluntly in “Prayer Primer: Igniting a Fire Within” (Ignatius Press, $10.99). “Even though growth is a gradual process, when we break free of egocentrism we find abiding delight.” But if petitionary prayer involves asking of God, isn’t it essentially egocentric? It might seem so, at first blush. But the very act of asking for help is an overt admission of a need that cannot be fulfilled by our own strength and abilities. Biblical prayer, Father Dubay further noted, “has it right: It is rightly and utterly God-centered, while at the same time it shows the Lord tenderly caring for us as the apple of his eye.” 

The very fact that we can approach God with our needs reveals something about the nature of God: He is personal, knowing and relational. As we hear in today’s reading from Exodus, God protected the chosen people (who were chosen out of divine goodness, not because of any quality of their own) from their enemies. Moses, the great prophet, extended his hands to heaven, the ancient expression of supplication and petition. Many of the Church Fathers saw this action as a sign foreshadowing the Cross and of the saving work of Jesus Christ, the new Moses.  

St. Paul, in his second letter to his spiritual son, Timothy, exhorted the younger man to remain faithful to what he had been taught about Jesus Christ. Timothy was to be persistent “whether it is convenient or inconvenient.” How often do we avoid spending time in prayer because we are busy, tired or simply “don’t feel like praying”? Perseverance in faith and persistence in prayer are intimately joined together. If, as St. Clement of Alexandria said, “Prayer is conversation with God,” it means prayer is ultimately the opening of one’s entire being to the presence of God. Which is why St. Patrick could say, “In a single day I have prayed as many as a hundred times, and in the night almost as often.” 

This sheds light on Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel that it is necessary to “pray always without becoming weary.” The parable of the widow and the unjust judge demonstrates, first, that prayer requires deliberate commitment, even in the face of opposition. Of course, the opposition is not God, but any number of other factors: exhaustion, frustration, doubt, selfishness, sin. Prayer requires discipline to overcome our discomforts and distractions. 

Second, prayer is meant for our growth in divine life and union with the Trinity. Who of us, wrote Father Dubay, “would have thought of prayer becoming continual and yet at the same time leaving us free to give unhindered attention to other people and to our work?” That is what happens when we “reach the summit, the transforming union” with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

The concluding line of today’s Gospel again connects faith and prayer: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” As long as we seek God in prayer, we demonstrate faith; as often as we admit our need for divine assistance, we grow in divine sonship. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.