What is Prayer?
A stunning field of gravity holds the planets around the sun. Its magnetism is so colossal and irresistible that everything within eleven million miles is pulled into orbit. Jupiter, Venus, Earth, and even the smallest debris are brought into this cosmic dance with the sun in the center.
What is prayer? The natural state of planets is to orbit around the sun. The natural state of humanity is to orbit around Christ, in our thoughts, will, heart, and being. This is the happiness that we are all looking for. The Psalms open up with this vision: “Happy is the man…[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season” (Ps. 1:1-3). We think we would be happy if life went a different way or we had this or that. Yet, that is a mistake. We only truly flourish as we learn to pray.
Unceasing prayer, St. Theophan the Recluse says, is “the unceasing turning of the mind and heart to God, accompanied by interior warmth or burning of the spirit…constant and unceasing, just like our breathing and heartbeat.” Jesus Christ told us, “I have come to bring fire upon the earth, and what is it to Me if it were already kindled” (Lk. 12:49). He is talking about the fire of the Holy Spirit, a flame stirred up as we learn to pray. People are always wondering about their purpose. Well, our purpose here is very simple, unceasing prayer.
Yet, prayer is hard. The sun’s gravity pulls everything around it. It would be nice if that were how prayer worked. On the contrary, it feels like everything around is pulling us away from God. While we were made to have God as the center of gravity in our lives, everything is backwards. “Houston, we have a problem.” Learning to pray is like fighting against gravity. It takes utmost tenacity.
So our gospel reading today gives us a formula.
“Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matt. 15:21-28).
This is a hard passage. Our Savior is supposed to be the epitome of compassion. Yet, here, his response to the woman feels cold. She is poor and desperate. She begs for help. He is silent. She begs more. He responds with challenging words.
We do not know the state of the Canaanite woman’s soul. We do not know if she cares about God, or what sin she is living in. We do not know her motivations. Yet, we identify with her. How often is God silent in our lives? How often do we feel stuck in suffering? We pray, but circumstances do not get better. “I was given a thorn in my flesh…to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Cor. 12:7-8). In the words of a folk singer, Peter Anderson:
It’s enough to drive a man crazy, it’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder, if he’s ever been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort from Thy staff and Thy rod
And the Heaven’s only answer is the silence of God.
Imagine standing there, at that crossroad in the desert. The disciples were silent. The angels were silent. All of heaven clung around this encounter between Christ and the Canaanite. What would happen? She did not budge. She remained unmoved, kneeling on the dust of the floor. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
She could have run away. She could have fought back. She could have responded in a hundred ways to defend her pride or make excuses. Instead, she swallowed her self-pity. “Yes, God, you are right. I am a sinner. I am unworthy. But please have mercy on me.” God tested her, as he tests us. She came because her daughter was sick. God went further. He cured her daughter and healed her heart. There is only one way to enter into the peace of heaven. We have to be tenacious.
How are we doing in our prayer life? What is going on in our hearts, when we pray in the closet or pray here at Mass on Sundays? What are the obstacles? Are we indifferent or too busy? Are we pressing on with the tenacity of the woman of Canaan?
“The humble man,” St. Isaac the Syrian says, “is always at rest, because there is nothing which can agitate or shake his mind. Just as no one can frighten a mountain, so the mind of a humble man cannot be frightened. If it be permissible and not incongruous, I should say that the humble man is not of this world. For he is not troubled and altered by sorrows, nor amazed and enthused by joys, but all his gladness and his real rejoicing are in the things of his Master.”
What is prayer? Young mothers share their frustration that they cannot pray. Their kids are bouncing around all day at home. At Mass, they spend their time chasing them. People with careers complain that they are tied up with schedules and over-exhausted. The elderly are just as bombarded with distractions and worries. How can we pray in so much commotion? Quite simply, we pray by surrendering.
Prayer is not spiritual. Prayer is not mental. Prayer is submitting whatever you are wherever you to God. For the mother, chasing ones kids can become prayer. At the heart of your career, your work may become your prayer. If you are suffering from illness or distractions, offer that up as prayer. Your deliberation to forgive and let go itself is an act of prayer. It is a common teaching in the Church that we do not come to Mass to pray. We come to be the Church. What they mean is our prayer is not mere quiet contemplation. Prayer is offering up entirely ones humanity. The monk is up through the night in an all-night vigil. The mother is up through the night in the vigil of childcare. Neither have less chance to pray. What is your cross? That is your opportunity to pray.
No noise, no distractions, no work has ever kept any man or woman from praying. We say we cannot pray, because we think prayer ought to be cozy and pretty. Prayer is death to self. Who is a better paragon of prayer then the woman of Canaan? She is an icon for us, a hero. She remained on her knees in all the din and noise, and so went back home happy.
Prayer is hard, but there is good news. The more we die to ourselves the more we live. The more we meditate on God the more we flourish, “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season.” If we can only surrender, then we will become happy. Like the planets revolving around the sun, the man who learns to pray has his heart, mind, soul, and body tuned to God. “He is not troubled and altered by sorrows, nor amazed and enthused by joys, but all his gladness and his real rejoicing are in the things of his Master.”