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Why Doesn’t God Answer My Prayers?

25 Sep

I think all of us have had the experience of praying for something or someone and not getting what we asked for. In those instances, did God “hear” our prayer? If He did, why did He say no? After all, Our Lord encouraged us to ask for things in His name and He would come through for us (e.g, Mt. 7:7-8; 18:19; Jn. 15:7). So, we might be inclined to ask, “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?”

Let’s start by providing some context. There are basically four types of prayer: (1) adoration or praise; (2) thanksgiving; (3) contrition (asking for forgiveness); and (4) supplication or petition.

For the first three categories of prayer mentioned above, we seldom trouble ourselves with the question of whether God heard our prayer. However, when it comes to prayers of supplication or petition–in other words, when we ask God for specific things–we naturally wonder about the efficacy of our prayer when we don’t get “results.”

Three things should be kept in mind when this happens.

First, we should reflect on our own motivation in seeking divine assistance. Are we praying to the Holy Trinity as the center of our lives, as the source and goal of our earthly existence? Or are we merely seeking to “use” God just to get what we want? God is our heavenly Father; He is not a “vending machine.”

Second, are we asking for something that is truly good for us? If what we’re seeking is not good, or if our hearts are divided, then we shouldn’t expect God to give it to us. After all, He desires our well-being, even when we don’t. As we heard at Mass this past Sunday, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas. 4:3).

Third, we must become truly convinced that we don’t know how to pray as we ought (Rom. 8:26). We turn to God in our need, not always realizing that what we truly desire is much greater and deeper than our feeble requests. Further, our Father already knows what we need before we even attempt to ask (Mt. 6:8), yet awaits our prayers out of respect for our dignity as His sons and daughters, eager to grant us His blessings.

Spiritual guides often remind us that prayer is meant to change us, not God. God does answer our prayers, but often in ways we don’t expect, as His ways are not our ways (Is. 55:8-9). As we grow in our relationship with God in prayer, we come to understand more intimately that God richly provides for all our needs.

The following quote from the early Christian writer Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-99 A.D.) sums it up well:

“Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask Him; for He desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to Him in prayer.”

Got Wine?

21 Sep

Since Pope John Paul II introduced the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary about a decade ago, it’s been a joy and sometimes a challenge for my family to embrace these new mysteries. We are always on the lookout for new ways of approaching these rich episodes in Christ’s life.

As we’ve given more attention to the wedding at Cana (Jn. 2:1-11), the second Luminous Mystery, I’ve been amazed at the depth of this passage. There are so many ways to approach this event, where Christ worked His first public miracle. Let’s examine a few of them.

First, the fact that it’s a wedding itself is significant. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “the Church attaches great importance to Jesus’s presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence” (no. 1613). In the midst of a culture that devalues marriage, this mystery redirects our attention to the fundamental goodness of marriage–both as a human institution and as a personal vocation in Christ.

The wedding at Cana also shows our Blessed Mother in action. As we pray in the Hail Holy Queen, Mary is our “most gracious Advocate” (Catechism, no. 969). As she interceded for the poor couple who ran out of wine at their wedding, she intercedes for each one of us. Her purpose is always to manifest and magnify her Son’s glory (see Jn. 2:11). She encourages each one of us, as she encouraged the servants at the wedding, to “do whatever He tells you” (Jn. 2:5). That, in an inexhaustible nutshell, is the essence of Christian discipleship.

The wedding at Cana is the first of seven “signs” in the Gospel of John that bring to light the glory of God shining forth through the Word made flesh. The Catechism succinctly describes the meaning of this “sign”: “The sign of water turned into wine at Cana already announces the hour of Jesus’s glorification. It makes manifest the fulfillment of the wedding feast in the Father’s kingdom, where the faithful will drink the new wine that has become the Blood of Christ” (Catechism, no. 1335; see also no. 2618).

During a private retreat, a less obvious dimension of this Luminous Mystery came to “light” for me. Continue reading

Pope’s Intentions for September

4 Sep

Following are the Intentions of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI for the month of September, courtesy of the Apostleship of Prayer:

  • Politicians.  That politicians may always act with honesty, integrity, and love for the truth.
  • Help for the Poorest Churches.  That Christian communities may have a growing willingness to send missionaries, priests, and lay people, along with concrete resources, to the poorest Churches.

Since the 16th century, the month of September has  been set aside to honor Our Lady of Sorrows, whose feast will be celebrated on Saturday, September 15th. At the foot of the Cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary suffered a martyrdom of the heart because of Our Lord’s torments and the greatness of her love for Him. As Vatican II teaches,

“[Mary] advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the Cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth.”

The Church has traditionally recognized seven sorrows of Mary:

(1) The Prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:33-35)

(2) The Flight into Egypt (Matthew 3:13-15)

(3) The Loss of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52)

(4) The Meeting of Jesus and Mary on the Way of the Cross (John 19:17)

(5) The Crucifixion (John 19:25-30)

(6) The Taking Down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross (John 19:31-37)

(7) Jesus Laid in the Tomb (John 19:38-42)

Click here for some traditional devotions to Our Lady of Sorrows.

For What Do We Pray?

24 Jul

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes struggle in formulating my prayers of intercession. Often I am tempted to pray for my own selfish interests and comfort, perhaps for my team to win (and for the team(s) ahead of them in the standings to lose–which in the Royals’ case is just about everybody), for balmy 75 degree days (not too many of those lately), and that my kids live happily ever after (after they set me and the missus up at a nice retirement home near a golf course).

Even when I go out of myself to pray for others, I can be at a loss. For instance, when we hear of tragedies such as what occurred last week in Colorado, how do we raise our grief and concern and compassion in a meaningful way?

I don’t claim to have all the answers to these questions, but I have come across two things lately that can help shape our approach to intercessory prayer. First, there is this paragraph from paragraph 33 of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on Christian hope, Spe Salvi:

“When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God–what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment–that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them. . . .”

We don’t know how to pray as we ought (cf. Rom. 8:26), so we need to allow the Holy Spirit to purify us and to teach us to seek in prayer what is truly good for us and for others.

Also, I’ve been reading a wonderful little book entitled A Deacon’s Retreat by Deacon James Keating. He identifies four intentions that are especially “worthy of God,” given the deacon’s unique role as leader of the prayer of the faithful at Mass:

(1) Holiness, for ourselves and for others in our orbit of relationships and responsiblities.

(2) For the strength and grace to faithfully live out our vocations (and not depend on our own steam).

(3) For the welfare of others. It has been said that it is God’s job to think of us, while it is our job to think of others.

(4) Deacon Keating says we should “intercede for those who are severely suffering because they are on the cusp of losing faith or truly entering the paschal mystery and becoming saints.”

For these and all the intentions that we hold within our hearts, Lord hear our prayer!

The Church and “Babble on”

21 Jun

In today’s Gospel, before giving us the “Our Father” as the model of Christian prayer, Our Lord says, “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them” (Mt. 6:7-8). Sometimes this passage is cited by Protestants to assert that Catholics engage in “vain repetition” in prayer, especially when it comes to the Rosary. Is there any validity to that assertion?

At the outset, we should note that the expression “vain repetition” refers to the translation of Our Lord’s words in Matthew 6:7 found in the King James Version (KJV) and other older Protestant Bibles: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetition, as the heathens do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (KJV).

Catholic translations (just as in today’s Gospel) as well as modern Protestant translations use expressions such as “babble” or “empty phrases” instead of “vain repetition.” The Greek word translated as “repetition” in the KJV more precisely means to prattle or chatter incessantly. So it’s fair to suggest that Christ never really instructed us to avoid “vain repetition” in prayer.

But even accepting this translation, the Rosary does not entail “vain repetition.” Our Lord is not condemning any and all “repetition” in prayer, but vain repetition–in other words, praying like the pagans or Gentiles (cf. Mt. 6:7), who “pray to gods that cannot save” (Is. 45:20). Pagans at that time would recite long prayers in order to be heard. Such practices indeed were empty and manifested a lack of faith.

However, the teaching and example of Jesus reflect the truth that repetition in prayer itself is not a problem, but rather such prayer can be fruitful and intimate. Just a few examples:

–Two verses later Jesus teaches His disciples to pray the Our Father (Mt. 6:9-13), which presumably would be repeated many times throughout the Christian’s life.

–During the account of the Agony in the Garden, we read that Jesus “went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words” (Mt. 26:44).

–In one of Jesus’ parables, the tax collector who humbly repeated the prayer “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” went home justified (Lk. 18:13).

–Even the angels and saints pray the same words over and over again: “Holy, holy, holy . . .” (Rev. 4:8). Clearly the heavenly liturgy doesn’t involve “vain repetition”!

For more biblical teaching on the Rosary, I recommend Catholic for a Reason II: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mother of God, which I co-edited with Scott Hahn.

Pope’s Intentions

1 Jun

Following are the Intentions of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI for the month of June, courtesy of the Apostleship of Prayer:

  • Christ, Present in the Eucharist.  That believers may recognize in the Eucharist the living presence of the Risen One who accompanies them in daily life.
  • European Christians.  That Christians in Europe may rediscover their true identity and participate with greater enthusiasm in the proclamation of the Gospel.

The Church traditionally dedicates the month of June to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This year the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart falls on June 15th, the Friday following the second Sunday after Pentecost. In addition to the liturgical celebration, many devotional exercises are connected with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and, in recent years, the Divine Mercy. The devotion to the Sacred Heart remains one of the most widespread and popular devotions in the Church.

 

Apostleship of Prayer

1 May

I always keep on my desk a leaflet from the Apostleship of Prayer, containing the Pope’s intentions for each month. Uniting ours prayers with those of the Holy Father and the universal Church is an excellent way to open ourselves to God’s personal call in our lives.

Before giving the Pope’s intentions for May, I’d like to recommend two privileged times for remembering the Pope’s intentions:

First, there’s the Morning Offering, which is a great way to commit our day to the Lord:

O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day, in union with the holy sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world. I offer them for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart: the salvation of souls, reparation for sin, and the reunion of all Christians. I offer them for the intentions of our bishops and for all the intentions recommended by our Holy Father this month. Amen.

Second, there’s the family Rosary. At the beginning or end of the Rosary, to gain the indulgence for praying the Rosary–and again to manifest the unity of our prayer with that of the universal Church–it’s customary to pray an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the Pope’s intentions.

But what are the Pope’s intentions this month? Here they are:.

The Family. That initiatives which defend and uphold the role of the family may be promoted within society.

Mary, Guide of Missionaries. That Mary, Queen of the World and Star of Evangelization, may accompany all missionaries in proclaiming her Son Jesus.

Living (Room) Stations of the Cross

29 Feb

Many of us may be familiar with “living” Stations of the Cross, in which actors (often high school students or members of the youth group) dramatically reenact Our Lord’s Passion. This can be a very powerful experience for all involved. I also recall the Passion Plays performed by Doug Barry with RADIX, which has come to so parishes around the country.

In addition, during Lent we are accustomed to the Stations of the Cross devotions that typically take place on Friday evenings in our parishes. These celebrations take place all over the world, culminating in the Holy Father’s celebration of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

I’d like to suggest another manner of celebrating the Stations of the Cross, which we do as a family in our own home, or “domestic Church.”

During Lent, we strategically place pictures that depict the 14 Stations of the Cross around our house. Over time and with practice we have figured out the best places to put them. On Fridays during Lent, often with another family joining us, we will have our meatless soup and bread dinner followed by the Stations of the Cross in our home, during which all of us process from one station to the next.

We have collected different Stations of the Cross prayerbooks over the years and have settled on the ones that seem to work best for us and allow for the active engagement of our children. (Click here for more resources on praying the Stations of the Cross with children.)

I’m all for larger celebrations of the Stations of the Cross, but after a busy week of work and school it’s nice to be able to stay home and pray the Stations in a more intimate setting. Plus, it is one further, tangible way to teach our kids that the Christian life isn’t just about what goes on over at the church building. Rather, our own “way of the Cross” is lived each day in the world–and in our homes.

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

 

Prayers for Life

23 Jan

There are now are two brand new texts for a Mass “For Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life.” As today marks the 39th anniversary of the tragic Roe v. Wade decision, with countless pilgrims gathering in Washington and throughout the country for “March for Life” and similar events, one of these special votive Masses would be especially appropriate today.

The opening prayer, or “collect,” for the first of these Masses beautifully expresses the prayer and aspirations of millions of pro-lifers:

God our Creator, we give thanks to you, who alone have the power to impart the breath of life as you form each of us in our mother’s womb; grant, we pray, that we, whom you have made stewards of creation, may remain faithful to this sacred trust and constant in safeguarding the dignity of every human life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The collect for the other Mass is equally moving:

O God, who adorn creation with splendor and beauty and fashion human lives in your image and likeness, awaken in every heart reverence for the work of your hands, and renew among your people a readiness to nurture and sustain your precious gift of human life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

Right Here, Right Now

10 Jan

I spent a couple wonderful years with a religious community in the 1980s as I was discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood and religious life. One day, they brought in a well-known retreat master to give the two dozen or so seminarians a day of recollection.

The first words of the priest to begin the day of recollection really startled me. He bluntly said, “None of you are called to the priesthood.” I looked around the room at all the postulants and said to myself, “Boy, Father Tom (the community’s vocation director) sures knows how to pick ‘em!”

The priest then explained that our vocation is “now,” that we must respond wholeheartedly to the Lord right here, right now by being holy seminarians. In five or six years, God willing, the bishop will lay hands on some of us, and then–and only then–would we truly be called to the priesthood.

As it turned out, I wasn’t one of the men called to become a priest. Yet, this important lesson has always stayed with me as a lay Catholic.

A crucial part of the lesson is to seek eternal life right now. This can be quite challenging given the pace of daily life in the world. Further, we already tend to think of eternity exclusively as the sequel to this life. In other words, we live our thirty or sixty or ninety years on this earth, and then only when we die does eternal life begin.

However, eternal life is a present reality. Sure, in this life “eternity” (literally a dimension outside of time) and temporality coexist, while only after we die will we experience eternal life in its fullness without the admixture of time. But make no mistake–there are seeds of eternity in us now. If there weren’t, we’d have no basis for believing that we will continue to experience life–the eternal, “abundant” life (Jn. 10:10)–after we die.

Scripture frequently presents eternal life as a present reality. For example, in John 17:3, Jesus says, “This is eternal life, to know You, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.” He doesn’t say, “This will be eternal life . . .”

The present moment is the junction between time and eternity. The past and the future are real, but they are exclusively temporal realities and so they lack the dynamism of “right here, right now.” God’s grace, which plants and nourishes in us the seeds of eternal life, is encountered in the present moment as we strive to live in God’s presence and accept His sovereignty in our lives.

Scripture does present us the case of St. Dismas, the good thief who converted at the very end of his life so that “this day” he was with the Lord in paradise (see Lk. 23:43). However, we can’t presume that when we come to the end of our lives that we’ll have the time and proper disposition to accept our Lord’s invitation. That’s a future thing. God speaks to us right here, right now.

We do well, then, to heed the Psalmist’s words, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps. 95:7). Or, as St. Paul puts it, “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor. 6:2).

Or, as a retreat master once told a bunch of fledgling seminarians, “Vocation is now.”

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