Persistence - what a curious quality to attach to prayer. Why
do we need to be persistent? Does God need to be reminded of what
we need? Does He forget what He has promised?
Does our heavenly Father have selective hearing, as so many earthly
fathers do? As a teenager, I used to marvel at how I would go
to speak to my father while he was reading the newspaper. He would
look up, stare at me, even nod - but five minutes later have no
recollection of what I had said. Yet, if I whispered a request
to my mother to use the car, he would suddenly yell from two floors
away, “Don’t let him have it, Marge!”
This explanation doesn’t seem likely. Jesus tells us, “Your
Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt 6:8)
God doesn’t forget. He sleeps not, nor slumbers. The prayer
of the lowly pierces the clouds.
Some of the oddness of Jesus’ command arises from the fact
that he gives us so little advice on how to pray. We are told
to pray in groups (“Our Father”), and to pray alone,
in our rooms, with the doors closed. Jesus tells us to ask for
whatever we need, and not to think we must use many words to gain
a hearing. But there is little else. Christ offers no detailed
guidelines, no handbook, no directives about posture, breathing,
or time of day. Should we sing? Should we kneel? Should our eyes
be open or closed? Christ says nothing about these questions.
How odd, then, that out of all the advice Jesus might give, he
makes a point of stressing persistence. However we pray, with
whatever words and in whatever position, we must pray persistently.
Sometimes the problem with prayer is fatigue, mental or physical.
Jesus tell us to pray without becoming weary; but often, we are
weary even before we begin. We are not angels. Praise is not our
sole occupation, nor spirit our complete substance. We have work
to do, and seemingly ever less time in which to do it. We few
of us take all the sleep we need. If we are sick, our bodies actively
rebel against prayer. If we are worried, we find any form of mental
concentration almost impossible. God knows our situation, and
presents us today with the marvelous image of Moses, who wants
to go on praying but is just too tired. So Aaron and Hur prop
him up. We, too, come to Church to be propped up in our weakness,
to be supported by prayers we know by heart, by rituals we have
followed from our earliest days, by pew upon pew of fellow, weary
Christians: exhausted mothers and worried fathers and children
worn out by a Saturday stuffed with practices and rehearsals,
by wives and husbands and sons and daughters worn out by a week
of caring for the sick, by men and women already wondering how
the weekend could be going by so quickly, and how they will attend
to all the errands they must do and fit in the relaxation they
would like to have. We all come here to prop each other up. Sometimes
that is the best gift we can offer other Christians: showing up
to give God thanks, even when we need a nap.
But more often, I think, the chief problem is not fatigue but
distraction. C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist and author
of the Chronicles of Narnia, confessed to just this situation
in his own prayer life: “Prayer is irksome. An excuse to
limit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling
of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant
to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer,
but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle,
any trifle is enough to distract us.” (Letters to Malcolm,
XXI). I count this an excellent description of my own prayer life,
except that I am also easily distracted from a novel and cross-word
puzzle, as well as just about anything else. A telephone call
will distract me from a book, a television show will distract
me from conversation, the sudden need to clean my office will
distract me from homily preparation. For me, and perhaps for many
of you, distraction is a constant, impolite companion to prayer.
Everywhere we look, things compete to catch our attention. Commercials
and advertisements and music videos and movie previews run by
at dizzying speeds, with bursts of fast music and flashes of bright
color, instantly succeeded - and sometimes overlapped - by the
next competitor. Computers blaze and video games sparkle, and
there is hardly a place to go to find silence, to escape the drone
of bad music loudly played, and the throb of silly voices masquerading
as conversation, news, and entertainment.
And then we come to prayer. We seek to raise our hearts to God,
to give Him thanks, to attend to what He wishes to say. And nothing
happens. Prayer can be positively aggravating, in the way that
a blackout aggravates us. When the power goes out and the speakers
fall silent, when batteries are depleted and there isn’t
enough light even to read by, we begin to get antsy, then annoyed,
then aggravated. There is work to be done, but we can’t
get to it; there is entertainment to be had, but nothing to power
it. When the electricity falls away, the blanket of distraction
which envelops us falls away, and the silence is painful. We become
bored. We begin to think about things we’d rather not. So
it is with prayer. If we try to sit down, plug in, and get the
good stuff flowing, we quickly realize it won’t happen.
God keeps us waiting, and soon we are bored. And that, perhaps,
is the real pain, the real irksomeness of prayer. The Lord may
be beside us at our right hand, but talking to Him is often excruciatingly
tedious. He doesn’t always answer right away, and waiting
for Him to speak, keeping ourselves silent, quickly becomes frustrating.
Yes, Jesus tells us God is not slow to answer; but if you are
as impatient and easily distracted as I am, even a brief period
of waiting feels like a burden, a chore, and on some days, even
a waste of time.
When He does speak, God has a tendency to remind us of the poor,
the lonely, the sick, our need to get to confession, and our duty
to forgive. We do not labor simply under the burden of distraction.
We enjoy being distracted: it shields us from all those unpleasant
reminders and commands.
And so Jesus commands persistence. He says, “Pray like someone
trying to get mercy from a stone. Pray like a widow who has to
batter down a door to get justice.” It is a hard command,
but merciful as well. Christ does not insist that we feel happiness,
or exhilaration, or ecstacy while we pray. He doesn’t promise
warmth and contentment, sweetness and satisfaction. With great
good sense, Jesus doesn’t attach any emotions to Christian
prayer. He doesn’t command us to feel anything in particular.
He commands us to pray, and to keep praying. He doesn’t
insist that prayer affect us like a sunset or a symphony or strawberry
ice cream, charming us or overwhelming us or satisfying us. He
doesn’t say, “Pray until it feels good.” He
who was tempted by Satan in the desert, and who prayed to the
point of bleeding in Gethsemane, doesn’t insist we feel
uplifted, transformed, or holy. He commands one thing: Keep at
Because prayer is like our muscle and bone: if we wait to use
our arms and legs until we need to run from danger, we won’t
get very far.
Because prayer is like a deeply buried vein of gold: if we fail
to keep digging away at the bleak, hard rock, no sunlight will
ever bring what is hidden alive.
The measure of good prayer is not pleasant emotion; the sign our
prayers have been heard is not an overflowing feeling of joy or
consolation or peace. Sometimes these gifts come, given by the
Holy Spirit. But just as the Lord commanded us to love our enemies,
not to like them, he commands us to pray, not to enjoy it. If
we pray long enough, if we are persistent, that joy may come.
I have heard holy men and women describe it so. I wonder what
it must be like.
In heaven, we believe that the prayer we labor to do here will
become an endless, effortless song of joyous worship. But for
now, for many of us, there is nothing for it but to obey the command
of Christ that we pray always, that we support one another in
prayer, and that we have faith that despite the distractions and
the fear and the dullness, our prayers are heard. God is a persistent