Jesus’ Prayers

A few weeks ago, my middle school class talked about Prayer. One of my goals as a Youth Minister is to try to engage parents more, so I’ve been sending out session recap emails in the hopes that the conversations we start in class can continue at home. I use question/comment slips from the end of class to not only glean some insight into how the kids are responding to the material, but also to let the parents know what questions their kids come up with. I try to choose a good question that is fairly representative of the class as a whole. Here is the Q&A portion of the email I sent out to parents after that session on Prayer:

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One very astute middle-schooler asked this week: “I learned that some people have trouble with praying. I want to know if Jesus had trouble with praying.” 

We talked in class about Luke 11:1-13, where Jesus’ disciples ask Him to teach them to pray and He gives the example of the Our Father. Let’s take a look at some other Bible passages in the Gospel of Luke which talk about Jesus’ prayer life:

Luke 5:16– “[Jesus] would withdraw to deserted places and pray”
Luke 6:12– “[Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer with God.”
Luke 22:39– 46- “He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’”

From these passages we know that Jesus liked to pray. He was in the habit of going off to be by Himself in prayer, so the disciples were accustomed to having Jesus leave for a little while and then come back. Sometimes they were invited to go with Him, but this prayer on the Mount of Olives is really exceptional because it shows us how intense Jesus’ prayer life was: “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.”

Have you ever had that happen? Have you ever been so wrapped up in prayer that you began to sweat blood? Not I. So it seems that Jesus didn’t have difficulty praying in the sense that we, who are less than perfect, do. Jesus had a strong connection with the Father (He is the Son, after all) that made prayer come naturally to Him and made Him aware of times when He needed to pray. He *wanted* to pray a lot! But that doesn’t mean that prayer was a happy-go-lucky romp through the meadow. This prayer at the Mount of Olives is not an easy one. Jesus is really struggling, because He knows what must be done. He knows what is going to happen with his betrayal and His arrest and being put to death. He even asks the Father to take this suffering (this “cup”) away if there could be any other way to accomplish the goal of Salvation. But Jesus, since He is perfect in all things, is our perfect model in prayer because even though He is frightened and REALLY struggling, He says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” 

Gethsemane_Carl_BlochJesus understood, and He teaches us to understand, that if we really truly believe that God is as good and great as we say He is, then doing His will is the best and greatest thing we can do. That doesn’t make it easy. That doesn’t make it easy for us to come to God in prayer and wrestle with these things, but it’s what we should aspire to.

So to answer this question: Yes and no. The struggles of an imperfect pray-er (like ME!) are very different from the struggles of a perfect pray-er (Jesus!). My struggles are more like: “How can I make time to pray? Why do I get frustrated feeling like God isn’t listening? How can I make prayer a habit? How can I be less selfish in my prayers?” Jesus had that stuff figured out because as a sinless human being who also happened to be the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son), He was a lot more advanced in prayer than I, but that doesn’t mean that His prayers were always easy. God doesn’t always ask us to do what is easy– so if we open ourselves to doing God’s will, we have to be prepared for the possibility that it will be difficult. But we learn from Jesus’ example: even when what we do and receive in prayer is difficult, we should still say “Yes, Lord, Thy will be done.”

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Good Spiritual Hygiene

Hi, everyone!

Since I started work as a Youth Minister this past summer, I’ve been completely swamped with varied and sundry tasks, so my blog has been pretty neglected. I realized recently that it’s not that I haven’t been doing any writing: I just haven’t been posting it!

So I’m going to try posting some of the Q&A articles I send out to parents of my high school Confirmation Candidates. After each formation session, I ask the students to submit comments and questions to me, from which I select one or two to answer in my weekly parent emails. Here are the questions from this week, after our session on “What is the Mass?” Enjoy!

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This week, I got a couple of interesting and related questions about Mass, primarily about why we go. One person asked: Why can’t we just pray at home? and another asked: Why are we supposed to go to Mass? We aren’t hurting anyone if we don’t. 

Good questions, both of them. I’ll start with the second one first. Let’s think about it this way:

There are a lot of things we are supposed to do just because they are good for us, regardless of how they may or may not impact other people. If you go to the dentist, they will tell you that you “need” to brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss regularly. They say that you “need” to do this not because it will hurt someone else if you don’t, but because it will harm YOU. Your health will be at risk. Maybe you’ll get gingivitis. Maybe your teeth will get cavities. Maybe they will rot and fall out. A good dentist will tell you that you “need” to do these things because he/she is concerned for YOU.

 

So, you should brush and floss because it’s good for you. But just because you aren’t actively hurting someone by neglecting your oral hygiene doesn’t mean that no one is affected by it, either. If you don’t brush and floss, you will have stanky breath. And I bet a lot of people would want to stop hanging out with you as much. It would be unpleasant for them, so they might choose to stay away from you. Maybe your best friends will be able to overcome their revulsion, but the choice you make to stop brushing your teeth will make it very difficult for them on a regular basis. It will strain your relationship.

I hope you get the analogy here. Attending Mass is something we need to do because it is “healthy” for our soul. Think of it as spiritual hygiene. No one will get hurt if we don’t go to Mass, but if we avoid taking care of our spiritual health, eventually we are going to spiritually stink. If we choose to not put God in a prominent place in our lives, if we choose to neglect the gift of the Eucharist (which helps cleanse us and protect us from the inclination to sin), then we will gradually build up some spiritual plaque. We’ll get some spiritual gingivitis, which might lead to some spiritual cavities and maybe some spiritual teeth will fall out. The temptation to sin is always there, but it’s really easy to overlook. It’s really easy to say, “I don’t feel like going to Mass this Sunday. I’ll do it next Sunday.” It’s really easy to say, “I don’t feel like flossing tonight. I’ll do it tomorrow.” But next day turns to next day turns to next day and all of a sudden, you realize you haven’t been taking care of those basic hygiene needs for quite a while now.


So, you are supposed to go to Mass because IT IS GOOD FOR YOU.

But you are also supposed to go to Mass because ALL OF US are contractually obligated to do so through our baptism. Nowhere and at no time will the Church ever say that non-baptized people need to go to Mass. It’s not an obligation for you if you’re not part of the Church. But if you are, going to Mass on Sunday is a Precept of the Church. Weekly Sunday Mass attendance is the absolute minimum we “need” in order to grow in faith, holiness and communion with one another as fellow Christians.

Which leads to the second question, “Why can’t we just pray at home?”

I hope the assumption here is that OF COURSE you can (and should!) pray at home, but that’s not enough. None of us are allowed to fall into the trap of thinking that we have a completely private relationship with God. Through your baptism, you become part of God’s FAMILY. God adopts you as a son or daughter through the Church, so that you are joined with LOTS of other people! Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

St. Paul talks in his letters about how we are all united in baptism into the “Body of Christ.” He says “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” (1 Cor 12:12-13a) When we come together at Mass to meet our own bare minimum of individual spiritual health, we come as a member of the Body of Christ—the Church. Some ancient Christian communities took this membership so seriously, that you had to get special permission from your pastor to be away from Mass on Sunday. If you were traveling, you needed to clear it with your congregation first, because it meant that when your community gathered on Sunday they would somehow be INCOMPLETE… because you weren’t there. ALL the members are needed in order for the community to worship God AS A COMMUNITY of faith—as a family.

God doesn’t want us to have an isolated relationship with Him. He wants us to have a personal relationship with Him, but that personal relationship is always mediated within and supported by the larger community of the Church. He calls us to come together to worship Him. Like any good Father, He wants to have a good relationship with all of His children, but He also wants his children to love one another and get along. He wants them to have a relationship with one another, because that’s how we grow in holiness.

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, one person strengthens another.” We become better sons and daughters of God when we take the time to worship our Father together. When we receive the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, we are not only more closely united to God (which keeps us spiritually healthy!), but we also strengthen our bonds with one another—with the other members of the Body of Christ.

What’s So “Luminous” About Those Mysteries?

+JMJ+

I’m going to be very honest here: I’m a curmudgeon about those Luminous Mysteries.

The Rosary has traditionally been said with only three sets of mysteries (Glorious, Joyful and Sorrowful), each with 5 decades, which when you add it all up comes to 150 Hail Marys.  There also happen to be 150 Psalms. This is not a coincidence: 150 Hail Marys were the psalter for the illiterate. It was a way for everyone to feel connected to the Liturgy of the Hours, to mirror in their busy, daily lives the constant prayer of the psalter that was done by the monks and nuns. There’s a beautiful symmetry and symbolism there. Then, in 2002, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote Rosarium Virginis Mariae in which he introduced another set of mysteries which he called the “Mysteries of Light,” which we shorthand to “Luminous.” These are:

  1. The Baptism in the Jordan
  2. The Wedding at Cana
  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom
  4. The Transfiguration
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper

I’ve got nothing against these events– they’re pretty great. But if you add 50 more Hail Marys you get… 200. Where’s the symbolism and the liturgical connection with that?

Psh. Harumph. Grumble.

But another reason I’ve been so curmudgeonly about the Luminous Mysteries is that for a very long time, the title didn’t seem to make any sense. “Mysteries of Light?” Apart from the Transfiguration, there really doesn’t seem to be any “light” happening in these stories. What am I supposed to be contemplating here? How did JPII get that name? For a long time I just avoided saying them on Thursdays, because it’s not like you have to say the recommended set of mysteries each day. But at some point I decided I needed to at least try to understand these things better and stop being so stubborn. So I read:

“In the course of [these] mysteries, we contemplate important aspects of the person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God. Declared the beloved Son of the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan, Christ is the one who announces the coming of the Kingdom, bears witness to it in his works and proclaims its demands. It is during the years of his public ministry that the mystery of Christ is most evidently a mystery of light: ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.'(Jn 9:5)”– RVM, 19

In his typical way, JPII is weaving together images, rather than creating a straight line of thought. As someone who likes to think linearly, this used to frustrate me a lot. Now that I know him better, I have come to find it endearing. In a few succinct sentences, he takes some threads: the person of Christ, revelation, public ministry, the Light of the World. He puts them together and voila!:  The Mysteries of Light.

Yet after reading this, I decided that we’ve fallen into a bit of misnomer when it comes to calling these the “Mysteries of Light”, because “Light” for JPII is shorthand for: The Revelation of God in the World Contained Within the Person and Actions of Jesus Christ. 

But of course, that’s a horrible name for a set of mysteries.

So if you have ever felt the same confusion or frustration I felt about the “Luminous” Mysteries, and what exactly you were supposed to do with them, I propose something that I have found very helpful in my own contemplation: simply call them the “Illuminating Mysteries.” Or the title that I prefer is the “Epiphanic  Mysteries,” from the word “Epiphany”– revelation. Rather than being distracted (as I am wont to be) by the “Light” imagery,  I now go through these mysteries I ask myself: “What is being revealed about God in this moment?”

Approaching them this way, I reflect on:

  1. The Sonship of Christ. The benevolence and love of God for giving us the sacrament of Baptism.
  2. The generosity of God’s miracles. His concern for human affairs. His elevation of marriage to a sacrament. His acceptance of Mary’s requests.
  3. The Kingship of God. The already-but-not-yet of our life here on earth.
  4. God’s promise of our own glory in heaven. His radiance above the law and prophets. His glory being so hidden here on earth.
  5. God pouring Himself out for us. God bestowing us the gift of the Eucharist.

…and much more. And each time I go deeper, I can see more of that tapestry woven of the person of Christ, revelation, public ministry, the Light of the World.

Of course, this doesn’t get rid of the psalter issue. I’ll still grumble about that on occasion. But I don’t wrestle with myself on Thursdays anymore, going back and forth about whether or not I should try to contemplate those Luminous Mysteries. Now that I understand a little better what they are all about, I pray them and try to let the imagery of revelation and light wash over me, with this text always in the background:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  — John 1:1-5

 

Stoplight Prayer

+JMJ+

I pulled up to the traffic light. My phone lay on the console next to me and I could see the little G-mail icon blinking. Just a few seconds before, my phone had buzzed with a text notification as well. I never text while I am driving… But as long as I’m stopped at the light, I might as well see what it is… so I checked the message quickly. It was from my sister, letting me know to call her when I arrived at her townhouse. Not urgent. I checked the e-mail. Some Land’s End sale. Not interested.

The light turned green. I put my phone down and headed on my way.

I started to ponder the mysterious pull that little blinky message sign has on me– on almost everyone these days. As if the possibility of instant and constant communication weren’t enough, we are bombarded with visual attention-begging even from our phones.

Someone is trying to talk to you, it beckons.

At a red light, in line at the grocery store, any time I’m bored here at home, that little device is right there– my connection to a world full of grown-ups who, even if they aren’t trying to get in touch with me directly through text and email, let me know what they are thinking and what they are up to through various posts, updates, tweets, and even pictures. They tell me what they are planning on making for their next cocktail parties, how they will decorate the new nursery, what they were doing five years ago, and what funny thing their kid said while they were on the toilet (Ok, so most of those things are direct examples of what I’VE told others recently).

As I drove away from that traffic light, I started thinking that this desire for constant, affirming communication is really just a desire for us to feel like someone is communicating with us. In those times when we are bored or feeling alone, we reach out for a connection. We want to feel like we’re in the loop on important things in our friends’ and families’ lives– so we grab our computers or phones and get a quick communication fix until the next red light.

“Do you have a stoplight prayer?” my spiritual director asked me once.

“A what?”

“A stoplight prayer. It’s very important to have a short, sincere prayer that you get into the habit of reciting every time you come to a stoplight. Of course it doesn’t have to just be a stoplight– any time you are in a line, or walking across campus, or waiting for the elevator. It’s just a quick way of checking in with God. Let Him know you want to stay in touch.”

“What would be a good one?”

“I like using, Come Holy Spirit. Simple. Effective.”

This conversation happened years ago. But today I realized how right and good and wise he was to suggest it. And how wrong and forgetful I have been to neglect it. These thoughts all bundled together and swept over me in a single flood as I put my foot on the gas pedal this morning.

Oh my gosh. What if I prayed like I text or check Facebook? I would end up praying… like… fifty times a day. 

And while each time I check e-mail or texts or Facebook and come up a little empty-handed (junk mail, unimportant message, nothing really for me), God really IS communicating with you every moment of every day. If we had a little icon that lit up telling us we had a message from God, we’d be reminded to check in and get our constant stream of messages:

I love you.

You are my cherished child.

Hey, remember when I died for you? I’d do it again in a heart beat.

Would you like to join me in Adoration? I’m waiting whenever you’re ready.

I’ve got some serious plans for you. Maybe we should chat about that soon.

I arrived at my sister’s house just three minutes later. We talked and sipped coffee. The kids played. It was a normal, happy visit. But this time when she went upstairs to put my nephew down for his nap, instead of grabbing for my phone to check in with emails, texts, Facebook, or whatever else I usually get sucked in to, I checked in with God.

Come, Holy Spirit. I’m here…what’s up? 

When the “Call” Isn’t Clear

+JMJ+

Just a few weeks ago, I had a great time giving a presentation to a university women’s group on Theology of the Body and Genesis 2. After the talk and discussion, a young woman came up to me and asked about my vocation story. She asked about life as a Lay Dominican and how I chose that over vowed religious life and whether I discerned a dating relationship while I was still considering being a sister… this was obviously going somewhere. So finally I asked her, “What are you discerning right now?”

She opened up to me about the all-too-familiar fears that face a college senior. As I spoke with her, I was immediately transported back to my 21-year-old self, who faced many of the same questions: How do I decide what job to take? Should I accept grad school offers instead? I’m not dating anyone, but I don’t have a clear call about whether I should be pursuing religious life or marriage– what should I do?

I smiled and gave her the only advice I know:

If God hasn’t made things clear for you yet, then the best you can do is to make a choice that makes you happy and offer it up to God.

I then shared the story of my own senior year, when I was convinced that I wanted to do a specific graduate program. Then a couple of friends, independently, suggested that I check out a certain internship on campus. I was’t interested. But they kept asking if I’d at least meet with the director, so I relented. He and I went out for coffee and my life was forever changed. Having never even applied, I was offered the internship and took it happily, telling myself that I would just do the grad program the following year. Two weeks later, I met my future husband. He was staying on campus for a fifth year– and he happened to be part of the choir I would be working with during my internship.

So if you’re facing a transition, or feeling called to a transition but you’re not sure what yet, here’s my little list of tips, gathered from personal experience, my sagacious spiritual directors and the Bible:

  1. PRAY. A lot. (Phil 4:6) Ask for what you want, ask God about specific options, tell Him what you are thinking and don’t be afraid to ask for a sign. He can do billboards if He wants.
  2. Take initiative. (Matt 7:7) Pursue all of the options that are attractive, whether a job, school, religious life or dating relationship. Be not afraid. A closed door is just as much an answer to prayer as an open one.
  3. Listen to little voices. (1 Kings 19:11-13) Your family and close friends will be full of advice for you. Ask them what they think, but realize they all have ulterior motives. They probably have a vision for your life because they love you and want you to be happy. But their visions may lead them to give erroneous advice. I think it’s more helpful to listen to the voices of people (like my friends) who randomly offer advice, or make an off-hand comment that sparks something in you. Especially listen to the voices who are persistent for no apparent reason. The Holy Spirit will nag if you don’t respond.
  4. Take it one step at a time. (Matt 6:34) We like to know the big-picture right away. God already knows the big picture, and He wants us to trust Him. So you don’t need to discern whether that guy is marriage material when you first meet. You don’t need to discern whether that religious group is somewhere you can see yourself living forever, or this job will carry you to retirement. All you need to ask is: do I feel called to follow this path RIGHT NOW? Let tomorrow worry about itself.
  5. Open your heart to surprises. (Luke 5:1-11) You, like your family and friends, may have a vision for your life. Some times this vision is God calling to your heart and pulling you closer to Him. Other times, it’s a distraction. God has been known to go big (I think about a college friend who got locked in an adoration chapel until she finally agreed to become a sister. She’s incredibly happy as a Dominican Sister in Nashville). Tell God that you are OK with being thrown off your tracks, that His plan is better than yours and that His will should be done.

I’d love to hear about your discernment and vocation stories! What has been helpful or unhelpful for you? Did God “go big” with your story? Or was it a slow process of discovery? How does He continue to call you each day?