17th Sunday In Ordinary Time 2013

July 28, 2013 Father De Celles Homily

July 28, 2013
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church,
Springfield, Va.

I’m a huge John Wayne fan.
Now, some folks say that he wasn’t a very good actor
—that he basically played the same character in every movie.
But I tend to think that he just had a unique style,
and applied that to every role he had,
both making the role his own,
and bringing something unique and powerful to the role.

In any case the other night I saw one of his old movies, called “Island in the Sky,”
where he played his typical strong virile type,
but there was also something different.
For most of the film Wayne’s character was afraid,
and he showed it over and over again.
And in response to his fear he repeatedly offered one primary solution:
he prayed.

Sometimes we like to think we’re John Wayne
—we’re strong on our own, we don’t need any help.
But then fear brings us to our knees.
In fact, sometimes God allows some pretty terrible things to happen to us,
specifically to break through our false bravado
so we’ll be afraid and realize there’s not a thing we can do
and that only He is powerful enough to overcome the impossible
—and that we desperately need Him, and need to pray.

It’s a shame we need to go through all this just to learn this most basic truth.

The apostles learned this in a much easier way:
they saw how Jesus depended on prayer, and they wanted to imitate him.
“Lord, teach us to pray,” they asked him.

Prayer is one of the most important and necessary parts of life
—not just the Christian life, but of human life.
Because man was made to live in relationship with God and with his fellow man,
beginning with his spouse and family.
And just as you can’t have a meaningful or fruitful relationship
with your husband or wife or son or daughter if you don’t talk with them,
how can you have meaningful or fruitful relationship with God
if you don’t talk with him?
And that’s what prayer is, a conversation with God.

Without that conversation, how do really get know God?
Of course it’s essential we learn about him
through the teachings he’s revealed to His Church
—this is like reading his private letters
to his oldest and dearest friends.
But, again, that’s knowing about him, not knowing HIM as a person,
or as 3 particular unique divine persons, Father, Son and holy Spirit.

How do we know his will for us?
How do we know and realize his presence with us?
If we don’t talk with him?

And how do we recognize his power and our need for him?
How do we recognize, from the depth of our being that he is almighty God,
and we are not?
And how do we recognize his love for us, as specific individuals?
If we don’t turn to him and talk to him in our need and in our thanksgiving?

How will we be open to his grace and power if we don’t first realize
that we are sometimes powerless,
or that the power we have comes from and is increased by him alone.
And how will we be open to admitting that it was he and he alone
who came to our rescue
if we don’t first admit to him in prayer that he and he alone can save us.

Some say, but God knows everything we need, why do we have to tell him?
Because he knows, but we keep forgetting,
so we have to constantly admit to him and to ourselves—in prayer—
that whatever particular little thing we need, we first need him.

Some say, God knows I love and thank him, he doesn’t need me to tell him.
No, but we need to tell him for our sake,
we need to admit it to ourselves and to him.

Prayer is not for God’s sake, but for ours.
We need to pray—he doesn’t need our prayers.

Some say to me, like the apostles said to Jesus: “teach us to pray.”
Interestingly, in the John Wayne movie
at one point Wayne admits he doesn’t know much about praying
and so he leads his friends in the only prayer he knows:
the same prayer Jesus teaches his disciples today: the Our Father.

It is the model prayer, and has probably been prayed by every Christian
since Jesus gave it to us.
But some people are critical of prayers like this:
they say we shouldn’t memorize and repeat other people’s prayers,
we should make them up on our own so that they “come from the heart.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with making up your own prayers,
but is it true that we don’t pray prayers like the Our Father
“from the heart”?
What’s wrong with taking the words that are from the heart of Jesus himself,
or from the heart of Mary, or the Angel Gabriel, or some other saint
and making them our own.
Well thought out, and carefully chosen words,
yet words inspired by love that truly bring reason and passion together:
from brilliant minds leading holy hearts.

Why can’t we take them, think about their beauty,
and how they enlighten our dull minds and pierce our hard hearts,
and them make them our own.

After all, one of the great difficulties that people have in praying
is knowing what to say to God.
One of the beauties of these prayers written by the saints,
which the tradition calls “vocal prayers,”
is that they help us both to begin to pray
and then to learn how to pray.

So while if we just started from scratch we might say,
“okay God, gimme what I want.”
Instead Jesus teaches us the better way, with the Our Father as the model.
He says, begin by recognizing and proclaiming God’s love
and his authority by calling him “our Father.”
Then, don’t order your Father around, saying “gimme”
–that’s not how we talk to God.
Instead ask that His will be done,
and humbly request just the simplest thing, bread.

So it’s so important to learn these “vocal prayers.”
And especially to teach them to our little children,
who have a great capacity to memorize.
Because by memorizing these prayers we not only learn the words,
but we also learn how to formulate our own private spontaneous prayers.

These private prayers we “make up ourselves”
are normally grouped with a way of praying called “mental prayer”
—so we have “vocal prayers”, the prayers composed by others,
and “mental prayers,” prayers that are more spontaneous.

Also included in “mental prayer” is the prayer not simply of talking to God,
but also listening to God.
So sometimes you pray by just sitting and reading a holy book
—like the Bible, a spiritual classic or even a saint’s biography.
And in the words of that book you find and hear the Lord speaking to you,
instructing you, wooing your heart.

All this comes together in a most special way
in what we’re doing right here today: the Mass,
the great prayer of Jesus in communion with His Church,
praying to the Father.

Of course, there are many, many “vocal prayers” in the Mass
—the formal ritual prayers,
from the sign of the cross to the Confiteor and Gloria,
to the Holy, Holy and the Eucharistic prayer,
to the Agnus Dei and, of course, the Our Father.
All prayers either taken directly from the Scriptures,
or composed and prayed over the centuries by the great Catholic saints.
So that the Mass is not simply a set of formal meaningless words,
but a school of prayer with Christ and the angels and saints
as our teachers.

And as we pray these beautiful prayers, if we just engage our minds and hearts
and see how profound the words are, and make them our own,
we can and should say them not just with our lips
but with our hearts and from our hearts.
Especially when we understand where they came from
and so have a deeper sense of their meaning.
So, for example, we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts,”
right before the consecration, and we remember,
these are the words the choirs of angels sing in heaven
before the throne of God
—as both Isaiah and the Book of Revelation tell us.
And then we remember that in the consecration the angels descend to earth
and we are with them before the throne of God,
come down and present on the altar.

And then, instructed by these beautiful vocal prayers
of Jesus and the angels and saints,
then in the quiet times of the Mass,
or as we listen quietly to the prayers of the priest,
we join the prayer of the Church
with our own spontaneous and mental prayers,
and talk to and listen to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
and even to the angels and saints here present.
The fullness of the prayer of the Mass.

When it comes to prayer, all of us sometimes think we’re like John Wayne
–rugged individualists who don’t need help from anyone.
But the reality is that all of us need God, and need to pray to him.

As we enter more deeply into the prayer of this Holy Mass,
let us remember we are at the school of prayer,
and let the prayers of Christ and His angels and saints
teach us how to pray, and how to make their prayers our own.
So that every prayer we say—at Mass or in private, whether vocal or mental,
may truly be a prayer from the heart,
talking to God and listening to Him.

“Lord, teach us how to pray.”