We Do Not Know How To Pray As We Ought
Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Romans 8: 26-27
In our second reading from St. Paul, he tells us that “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” And don’t we know that from our own experience? I’m sure many, if not most of us, have had the experience of thinking that we needed something, and even praying for it, only to get it, and realize that we didn’t really need it, or even that we don’t really even want it. You’ve all heard the saying, “be careful what you pray for, you just might get it!”
“We do not know how to pray as we ought.” This problem is compounded by millions if we take the whole Church. How are we supposed to know how to pray for the whole Church, if we don’t know even how to pray for ourselves? Well, St. Paul gives us the answer. He says “the Spirit himself intercedes for us...” How does this work? Well, no doubt, in the moments when we are least able to articulate the needs of our souls, the Holy Spirit prays for us, individually. But even more so, the Holy Spirit offers intercession for the whole Church, and the Spirit does this through the liturgy. Why, because the Church is the Body of Christ, and the Mass is the perfect prayer of Christ, offering Himself to the Father, and us with Him.
Remember, when we say that the Church is the Body of Christ, that isn’t just a figure of speech – we really mean what we say. We are, the whole Church as it is today, down through the ages since the apostles, and on into forever, actually incorporated, made into, Christ Himself. The Church and Christ are one.
The Church is also the Bride of Christ. And as such she knows the mind of Christ. Here’s an example: How many of you who are married know what your wife or husband will say about something before he or she says it? (hands go up across the congregation) Exactly, most of you. That’s because husbands and wives are in communion with one another, and you come to know the mind of your spouse. Well, how much more so will this be the case between the Church and His spouse, the Church? Christ and His Church are in even more profound and intimate communion than any husband or wife. Indeed, the Church and Christ are in perfect communion. So when the Church teaches, she teaches with the mind of Christ. And when she speaks, she speaks with the voice of Christ.
And she does this first and foremost in the Mass. Who gave us the Mass? (someone in the congregation says “Jesus”) Exactly, Christ himself gave us the Mass. Now, it seems to me that it’s safe to say that Jesus is the most perfect pray-er ever. Does anyone want to contest that statement? No? Good. So if Jesus is the most perfect pray-er ever, and we want to pray perfectly, then the best way to do that would be to unite ourselves to His prayer. And that prayer is the Mass. But we have to do this through the Church, since Christ gives us the Mass through the Church. So if we want to pray this perfect prayer in unity with Christ, then we have to do it in and through His bride, the Church. And that means we have to do so according to the mind and heart of the Church.
Which brings me back to the issue of “static” that I have been talking about for the past couple of weeks. Many of us frequently bring with us sources of spiritual static that interfere with our receiving all the graces that our Lord offers in the liturgy, much like the static on a radio interferes with our receiving everything the station is broadcasting.
And one of these sources of static is what I would call a false separation or distinction between our faith, our relationship with Christ, and the Church. We tend to think of these things as separate entities. We think well, there’s Jesus here, and there’s the Church over here. We tend to approach our spiritual lives as a “me and Jesus” kind of thing.
Now, on one level, this is an understandable error. That’s due, in large part, to our cultural and religious surroundings as early 21stcentury Americans. America, you see, is a predominantly Protestant nation. And the culture in which we are immersed is predominantly Protestant. This phenomenon led one priest I know to say, “the problem is that, in America, everyone is Protestant, even the Catholics.” And the thing is, to look at our spiritual lives as a “me and Jesus” thing, to see our relationship with Christ and the life of grace as separate from the Church is in fact a very Protestant approach.
Let me give an example: How many of you have ever had a missionary or evangelist from a protestant church come to your door? (many hands go up in the congregation) Now, I would be willing to bet, that in the course of your conversation, you were asked something like this: “Have you accepted Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Now let’s reflect on that for a moment. “Have you accepted Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Now what is missing in that question? What is missing in that concept? Let me ask you: where does the Church appear in that question, or the concept behind it?
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. The Church doesn’t figure in that equation, so to speak. To think of our faith and our relationship with Christ in this way is in fact not a very Catholic approach at all. Now, this doesn’t mean that those protestants are bad people, or that they’re bad Christians. But it does mean that they don’t share in the fullness of the Faith that comes from the apostles. And isn’t that what we want? The fullness of the Faith of the apostles? The fullness of the grace and power of Christ that comes to us through the Church, which Christ founded on the apostles?
You see, the problem is that, if we see Christ and the Church as these separate things, then we tend to approach what the Church offers us not as people needing to receive and be fed, not as disciples needing to learn. Rather, we tend to set ourselves up as those who evaluate or judge for ourselves what the Church offers us. We become like diners at a buffet table: well, I’ll take a little of this, and a little of that, but none of that, thank you very much.
And that mindset profoundly limits our receptivity to the grace of Christ. Because, during Mass, there’s something under the surface, always judging “do I like that”, “how do I feel about that?” That’s not the spirit of a disciple.
When the Church holds something out to us as good and holy, we’ll find that thing either appealing or unappealing. Now, if we find that thing unappealing, if we’re approaching the Church as our mother and teacher, we’ll try to accept and learn to love what she gives us. If we’re approaching our Faith as a “me and Jesus” thing, we might very well reject what the Church offers us, because it’s unappealing at the moment, and we’re not seeing that what the Church offers us, Christ Himself offers us – because Christ and His Church are one.
And notice on what basis we end up rejecting what the Church offers us. We reject it because it’s unappealing to us. And that brings me back to a point I made last week: the temptation we’re always up against is the temptation to make the Mass about ourselves. To approach our faith and worship in a “me and Jesus” way, without approaching Christ in and through the Church, is in the end to succumb to the temptation to make the liturgy about ourselves.
The remedy for that temptation is to approach Christ in the heart of and according to the mind of His bride, the Church. And we do that by receiving and participating in the liturgy as the Church gives it to us – and remember, not just as we see it here and now, but as it has been given to us down through the ages. Pope Benedict reminded us last year: what was good and holy for previous generations is good and holy for us as well.
So let’s not limit ourselves to being receptive only to what we, here and now, think is appealing or congenial to us. Let us open ourselves up to the whole treasury of grace, beauty and power that Christ gives in the Church’s liturgy. Christ gives us the fullness of His grace and power in the Mass. And if we’re trying to receive that fullness while focused on judging or evaluating the liturgy according to what appeals to me, then we will necessarily miss out, because you and I, each one of us, is too narrow and small. The Church, however, is vast and wide, and in her we will find all that we seek, and much more besides. In her, and her alone, can we be that wheat that our Lord speaks of, that yields abundantly, and that He will gather together to Himself.