• Ex 17:8-13
• Ps 121:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
• 2 Tm 3:14-4:2
• Lk 18:1-8
How long can any of us live without air? A few minutes at best? How long can we live spiritually without prayer? Frankly, I often take prayer for granted. But I doubt that I’m alone in that regard. Just as air goes unnoticed until it is absent, prayer can, inversely, sometimes be absent until we suddenly find ourselves in a crisis that leaves us gasping for spiritual air.
Today’s readings, as different as they are from each other, highlight two aspects of prayer that are, paradoxically, often overlooked and yet are readily obvious to all of us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers directly to these two qualities:
“Before confronting his elder brother Esau, Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious figure who refuses to reveal his name, but he blesses him before leaving him at dawn. From this account, the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance.” (par. 2573).
Prayer, then, is both a battle of faith and the triumph of perseverance. We usually don’t think of prayer in these terms because, I think, we often envision prayer as having to be serene and peaceful, a smooth path of communication between God and ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, we all know that prayer often is a battle; it is a struggle against our natural inclination to not pray if we “don’t feel like it.” And prayer can also reveal to us the grim reality of spiritual warfare. This battle, the Catechism insightfully points out, shows us that “Christian prayer is neither an escape from reality nor a divorce from life.” Rather, just as the life and letters of Mother Teresa demonstrate, “our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness…” (par. 2728).
Today’s first reading, from the book of Exodus, provides a dramatic example of prayer as a battle and a victory of perseverance. The passage describes the Israelites being attacked by the Amalekites, who were descendents of Jacob’s brother, Esau. Moses takes up the staff of God, which had been used previously to defeat the Pharoah, and stands on a hill, with hands raised, overlooking the battle. The word “prayer” doesn’t appear, but clearly Moses, the God-chosen leader of the Israelites, is upholding his embattled people in prayer and, when he tires, is helped by the high priest, his brother Aaron.
Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, interpreted Moses’ actions as a foreshadowing of the sign of the Cross, and John Chrysostom took up this same image, writing, “But Christ, when he came, himself held his hands extended on the cross by his own power.”
Both Jesus, in today’s Gospel, and Paul, in the epistle, talk about perseverance in prayer and faith. The Apostle to the Gentiles exhorted Timothy, his surrogate son in the Faith, to “remain faithful to what you have learned and believed” and then solemnly charged him to “proclaim the word” and “be persistent.” What we believe and what we pray are intimately connected, as expressed in the ancient statement, lex orandi, lex credendi—“ The law of prayer is the law of faith” (cf., CCC 1124). Perseverance in faith is perseverance in prayer.
In Luke 17, read the past few Sundays, Jesus spoke about faith, indicating that the apostles possessed little of it. In Luke 18 Jesus is described as telling His disciples “about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” The parable He told was rather humorous—a dishonest judge gives in to the rightful demands of a widow because he fears she will beat him up. But the point is just as serious: true faith and authentic prayer are persevering in nature.
Prayer is often difficult because it is part of a battle. Praise God, that battle has been won on the Cross by the Son of Man. May we persevere in faith and prayer, so we might see Him face to face.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the October 21, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)