16th Sunday in Ordinary Times
Gen. 18:1-10; Psalm 14:2-5; Col. 1:24-28; Gospel of Luke 10:3-42
Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of Good Shepherd, Singapore on 21 July 2019
We are all very familiar with the episode of Martha and Mary in the Gospel that we just heard proclaimed. We all know that Martha was somewhat upset with Mary her younger sister for not helping her with the cooking in welcoming Jesus as their valued guest. Jesus surprised Martha with His answer, when He lovingly and gently responded, “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.”
In saying this, Jesus was not being unappreciative of Martha’s love for Him, in her efforts to prepare a sumptuous meal for Him. In doing so, Jesus was reminding Martha, that she should not be too distracted and be fretting overly over what is of less importance than spending quality time with Him, through listening and learning from His Wisdom.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, while we can see from Jesus’ response to Martha, about Mary having “chosen the better part”, Jesus is emphasising that while both are good, needed and inseparable, the spiritual nourishment of our souls of Jesus’ Words of Salvation should be given a higher priority, and we are not to be too distracted by the material nourishment of our bodies.
If we reflect on the daily decisions that we make, “Do we find ourselves to be more like Martha where we are frequently distracted and fretting overly over unnecessary material things and secular comforts of our lives, or are we more like Mary who gives a higher priority to choosing what nourishes us spiritually?” For example, “Are we living a very hectic and anxiety filled life, and finding ourselves fussing over superficial things and quarrelling shamefully over small matters like food, fashion and our figure, and spending most of our time, energies and money in them?
Or alternatively, when it comes to attending our Sunday Masses, saying our personal and family prayers /and other spiritual matters, like our need to serve and support the Church, care for our aged parents, and support and serve the poor and the needy, and the like, do we find ourselves giving such spiritual matters our disinterested attention, our dissipated energies, our loose change, and our low priorities in our lives?
My sisters and brothers in Christ, within the time constraints of this homily, I am only able to elaborate the importance of developing a good prayer life. And, this is the meaningful contemplative prayer life that Mary in today’s Gospel has chosen, and Jesus has affirmed as the “better part.”
We all know that if we want to deepen our faith and improve on the quality of our relationship with Jesus, it is essential that we need to develop a good prayer life. However, even with the best of intentions and discipline, we could say that for many of us, if not the most of us, we are experiencing much challenges and struggles in developing a good prayer life. Again, time constraints do not permit me to reflect much on what it means to have or how to build a good prayer life. We have only time to reflect on the not uncommon experiences of the struggles of prayer life.
One of the main reasons of why this is so, is because we have the tendency to be more like Martha where, as Jesus says, we fret and fuss, and are so busily caught up and distracted with the material concerns of our lives. Even for the many of us who long to become more like Mary, we are experiencing great struggles in our prayer life. And when this happens, and if we are not cautious of the direction in which our prayer life is heading, we can eventually lose sight of the “better” and more spiritual part of our lives that Mary in today’s Gospel has chosen; /which is the authentic and more contemplative listening to God’s Words, that nourishes our soul.
Jennifer Hartline, a devoted Catholic, a renowned author and columnist, a mother of four children, shares her great struggles in her prayer life, even though she sincerely desires to deepen her relationship with Jesus. I have in this homily woven her sharing of her prayer experiences with my own thoughts on what these struggles can be in our prayer life.
First, Jennifer asks and admits, “Why is developing a good prayer life such a struggle? Everything in me wants to be closer to Jesus. There’s nothing in my heart that wants to reject Jesus and choose the secular and materialistic world instead. Yet I continually seem to be clawing my way up the mountain loaded down with frustration and doubt, instead of walking steadily along the path of trust and devotion in my prayer life.
I love Jesus. There is no doubt about that. He is my Wonderful, Merciful Saviour. I will not let Him go. That much I know for sure. So why doesn’t that translate into a vibrant, rich, colourful, fulfilling prayer life? What’s wrong with me?”
From my struggles in my prayer life, I have come to realise that first, we are each called to affirm the truth that the struggles we experience in our prayer life are themselves a gift from God. In other words, if I truly wish to develop my relationship with Jesus, I must simply to be faithful in my prayer life, as a commitment of my love for Him. Not to have a good prayer life is like two spouses wanting to grow in their love and relationship, but are not willing to spend time talking and listening to one another.
The depth and fidelity of my love for God is proven during the hard times; especially during the flat, stale, monotonous times. It’s easy to fall in love, but staying in love requires great effort. God has heard me say I want to love Him more, and He obliges my request by giving me ample opportunities to prove it, through the challenges I encounter and expected to embrace, in my prayer life. It is then up to me to push my weak heart to resist the complacency and excuses and distractions /and come to Him in prayer with fidelity.
Fr Ronald Rolheiser once wrote, “Never travel with anyone who expects you to be interesting all the time. On a long trip there are bound to be some boring stretches.” In other words, everything is not exciting, brimming with emotion and romance all the time. And this does not automatically mean that there is something wrong because routine and duty too have important parts to play in the growth of our relationship with God and one another.
Jesus knows what meager, pitiful things I have to give Him even on my best days. It’s not Jesus who tells me I must prepare an extravagant banquet for Him every time I pray, but Satan the enemy of my soul, who make such false expectations. And this is how Satan frequently persuades me to skip prayer when I am feeling stressed or disinterested or unmotivated. It is during such trying moments of my life that Satan’s temptations are strongest; and so he cunningly whispers in my ears, “Why bother to pray when your heart does not feel like praying?
Well, this is precisely the reason why I am more determined to pray when I am down, and do not feel like praying. I need to fight and overcome the temptations of Satan who wants me to drift into the habit of giving myself the excuses for not praying. This is because, when I stop praying and communicating in a personal way with Jesus, our relationship can very easily drift apart, and become lukewarm, superficial and even superstitious. However, each time I am faithful to my prayer, I am building spiritual muscles and training my will. I’m showing the Lord in my small ways that I am not perfect, but at least I am a sincere follower.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the biggest challenge of our prayer life is more than giving in to the excuses for not praying when we are very busy and tired, or are feeling down, and more so, when things are not working well in our lives. Instead, one of the biggest challenges for those of us who are trying to develop a good prayer life are when we are experiencing frequent dryness in our prayers.
During such dryness and desolations in our prayer life, we have the impression that nothing seems to be happening, and we are just wasting our precious time away when we could have been doing something more productive. For example, subconsciously, we may be saying to ourselves, I am so busy and have so much to do; time is very tight for me. Sitting there for the 30 minutes with most of my prayer time in distractions and drowsiness, is a waste of time. I could have spent the time more fruitfully in answering the important emails or cleaning up my room or having made the important phone call, and the like.
Another great temptation to avoid in our need to develop a good prayer life is that /we are not comfortable with encountering the deep silence and the truth of who we truly are, and also our unwillingness to hear what God may have to say to us, or challenge us, in the areas of our lives which need conversion and renewal. As such, we sub-consciously and very quickly justify by cluttering our minds with thoughts and distractions, /and allow our emotions of anxieties, anger and apathy, /to draw us away from listening to what God, in the Holy Spirit wishes to say to us during our prayer time.
And so, a good question to ask ourselves, especially for those of us who are like Jennifer, and are longing to develop a meaningful prayer life and sincerely wishing to love Jesus more personally and deeply is, “Do you think, Mary in today’s Gospel also had to struggle in her prayer life when she contemplates and tries to comprehend the Gospel Truth that Jesus proclaimed?”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, you can be sure that Mary and all the saints had to struggle with the challenges they face, while they were developing their prayer life, /even though they are closer to Jesus and are much more fully committed and more faithful in living the Father’s Will than you and I. Even Jesus Himself is not spared. He had to wrestle with His Father’s Will when He in His Agony in the Garden prayed, “Father, if it is possible, remove this cup of suffering that is to come upon Me, but not My Will, but Your Will be done.”
And so, as I conclude, let us remind ourselves that to develop a healthy prayer life demands much discipline, strong will, repetition and humility. It is a challenge that is surely going to persist. But, what matters to God and also for us is our sincerity to beg God for the graces and mercy we need when we are facing the struggles in our prayer life. /When we are humble enough to admit this, then our fidelity in prayer during the hard times are the little “triumphs” that will go far in the long run, /as they are expressions of our committed love for God.
And so, the frustrations, dryness and even darkness of our prayer life experiences /where God seems to be distant and absent from us, are not empty struggles. /In God’s Providence and Love for us, He allows us to experience these meaningful challenges of desolation in order to help us grow in the maturity of our faith, hope and love for Him.
Ultimately, as we are inspired by Jesus’ affirmation of Mary who has chosen to be nourished spiritually by listening to His Words, instead of Martha’s distractions, of fretting and fussing over His food, let us pray for the wisdom to be more like Mary, so that even as we are facing the challenges and struggles of developing a more meaningful prayer life, like her, we would have the wisdom to persevere and renew continuously our prayer life. And, in the end, grow in the maturity of our relationship with Jesus, and become more like Him daily.
Msgr Philip Heng, S.J.