Sunday, February 4, 2018

LIFT UP YOUR HEART AND MIND TO GOD: a homily for the Fifth Sunday, year B (Mark 1.29–39)

You can hear the audio here.

            Our Lord went out into the wilderness and there He prayed.  Why?  Why does God need to pray?  Our Lord prays because He is also man and as man, as a human being, He is never more human than when He spends time, in prayer, with God.  He also goes to pray because as God the Son He wants to spend time with His Father.
            It is said that a couple that doesn't spend quality time together will drift apart and undermine their relationship.  There needs to be communication between spouses, the members of a family or of a community or people lose connection, they drift and stop loving one another.  No human being is truly alive, truly human if they are alone.   The poet said it well: "No man is an island, entire unto himself."
            Yet like our Lord, without time away from those persons and things that drain us, without time given restore our strength and inner peace, we run dry and can give no more.  Our Lord needed to be in the wilderness in prayer so that He could recharge His batteries, so to speak.  He needed the solitude, the silence of the night, so that He could hear what Scripture calls "the still, small voice" of God.
            Our Lord also goes out into the wilderness to give example to His disciples and to us.  He is showing us that prayer is more important even that rest and sleep.  He is showing us that our relationship with our Father in heaven really is vital to us and without that contact in prayer we cannot fulfil our earthly mission; we cannot be truly alive.
            So impressed are His disciples by our Lord's prayer and His commitment to it that they will ask Him to teach them to pray.  So He taught them the Our Father not as the only prayer they should say but as a model for prayer.  When we pray it is ultimately to the Father that we pray even if the prayer we say is to our Lord or the Holy Spirit, to our Lady or one of the saints.  Our prayer should be simple and direct, acknowledging that all good things come from God.  It should be an act of trust and submission to His Holy Will.  It should seek only what is needed for today and entrust everything else into His hands.  It should be said in repentance for sin and forgiveness for others.  It should ask that we not be tested or tempted and trust that He will save us.
            Yet the Church's definition of prayer says that prayer is the "lifting of the heart and mind to God."  For years I thought that a mean and minimalist definition.  Now I realise that it is the essence of prayer.  Whatever enables us to sincerely lift our heart and mind to God is prayer.  If walking in the garden, or in a park or in the countryside helps you to lift heart and mind to God then it is prayer.  If painting yourself blue and standing on your head helps you lift your heart and mind to God then it is prayer though I recommend that you do not do it in public and perhaps you should talk to a professional... 
            Note that the Church's definition says nothing about the words we should use.  The words in our prayers that we learn teach us how to think about God correctly and they give us models for our prayer but it is the heart and mind fixed on God that is the prayer not the words.   If there was one thing the Franciscan tradition would add to the Church's definition is that prayer is lifting the heart and mind to God in faith and love.  

St John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, tells of a farm labourer in his parish who would call into the church to pray before his day's work .  Sometimes he would be so deep in prayer his tools would still be at the church door that evening.  St John asked him one day "How do you pray?"  The man shrugged and said, "He just looks at me and I just looks at Him."  That simple labouring man, who probably could not read or write, was near the heights of prayer.  He understood that prayer is lifting heart and mind to God in faith and love.  He is not that exceptional among those who love God.
            If you read the lives of the saints, or better still their writings, again and again you will hear the same story: they sought the Lord in prayer and they found Him.  He had been with them all along but He waits until we have proven our faith and love before He reveals Himself.  Why does God need proof?  He doesn't.  We need to prove it to ourselves.  We need to make the sacrifice of going out into the wilderness, that is, of getting rid of all the unnecessary things, the noises, the distractions that keep us from lifting our hearts and minds to God.  The great Cardinal Sarah in his book, the Power of Silence, talks about how today we are subject to a dictatorship of noise so much so that we cannot really hear not only God's voice but our own.
            In prayer we discover God and in discovering God we discover our true self.  In making space for God we are actually making space for one who loves us and made us for Himself that we might know Him and be with Him forever.  In neglecting to pray we are not neglecting a mere optional extra.  In neglecting to pray we are neglecting to be truly human, to be truly Christian, to truly follow Christ.  In neglecting to pray we are starving our soul of what we most need: contact with God.
            I urge you make time to pray.  Make time to lift up your heart and mind to God even if you feel a fool.   Lift up your heart and mind to God by whatever means you can.  If you are like the sinner in the temple who could only ask for mercy you will find that He is full of mercy.   If you are weighed down with worries He will ease that weight.  No one has ever sincerely sought the Lord in prayer and come away unheard, unchanged, unblessed.  Persevere in prayer and keep praying until your last breath and you will finish your prayer in heaven.

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