Four Teachings on Personal Prayer – A Homily for the 16th Sunday of the Year
The gospel today speaks to us of the priority of personal prayer. You may recall that in last week’s gospel, Jesus sent them out two by two to proclaim the Kingdom. Now they return, eager to report the progress and the graces they encountered.
But as Jesus listens, he urges them (perhaps because they are overjoyed) to come aside and rest awhile, for they have labored long. In so doing, Jesus also teaches us about prayer. Let’s consider four teachings on prayer that are evident in today’s gospel.
I. The Practice of Praise-filled Prayer – The text opens with the disciples gathering with Jesus and joyfully recounting all they experienced on their missionary journey. In a similar text in Luke (10:17), the disciples return filled with joy and rejoice that demons are subject to them (in the power of Jesus).
Thus, the first instinct of the disciples is joyful gratitude before the Lord.
Is your prayer filled with praise and thanksgiving? Are you grateful to God for all He has done? Do you tell God what is happening in your life and give Him thanks for all He has enabled you to do?
Too many people think of prayer only in relation to petition. But praise is also an essential component of prayer. When Jesus began his instruction on prayer, He said, When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name’ (Mat 6:9). In other words, “Father your name is holy; you are a great God, a wonderful God; you can do all things and I praise you! Thank you Father; your name is holy and you are holy.”
So praise the Lord. Thank Him for what He is doing and tell Him everything you are experiencing. Scripture says that we were made for the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:16). So praise the Lord in your prayer. Don’t know how? Take a psalm of praise; pray or sing the Gloria from Mass; sing or recite a hymn, but praise Him!
II. The Peace of Personal Prayer – Jesus invites the disciples to come away by themselves to a quiet place and rest for a while. Most people don’t think of their personal prayer as a privileged invitation from the Lord, nor do they think of it as rest.
Yet, consider that the Lord invites us to come aside and spend personal and private time with Him. Most people would relish personal attention from a celebrity or famous person. Why not from the Lord? An old song says, “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”
Note the description of this time as “rest.” Most people think of prayer more as a task than as a time of rest. Yet to pray is to rest, to withdraw from this world for a brief time and enjoy the presence of the Lord. Scripture says, For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, “In repentance and rest you will be saved. In quietness and trust is your strength” (Is 30:15).
And old hymn says,
Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
That calls me from a world of care,
And bids me at my Father’s throne
Make all my wants and wishes known.
In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief,
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare,
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!
Learn to think of prayer as quiet time, as rest with the Lord, when He soothes, strengthens, refreshes, and blesses us.
III. The Primacy of Prioritized Prayer – The text tells us that people were coming and going in great numbers seeking the attention of the Lord and the Apostles; they could not even get a moment to eat!
Now there is no doubt that the people had critical needs. They needed to be taught, healed, fed, and cared for in many ways. And yet even in the face of this, Jesus said, in effect, “We have to get away from all this for a while.” He directed the disciples to go off in the boat to a deserted place.
Indeed, one of the few places they could “get away” was out on the water. So out they went, where the crowds could not follow them. They were alone and quiet for just a brief while.
Jesus made prayer a priority. Scripture says of Him, But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). Scripture also speaks of Him rising early to pray (Mk 1:35), praying late into the night (Mt 14:23), praying all night long (Lk 6:12), and praying in the mountains (Matt 14:23) and other deserted places. Yes, Jesus made prayer a priority.
Understanding prayer as rest helps us to understand why prayer must be a priority in our lives. If we are going to engage in the work to which God has called us, we need to be replenished and refreshed daily by spending time with the Lord.
If we were to engage in physical work without ever stopping to rest, we would collapse. The spiritual life has a similar law. Resting with God in prayer fills us with His presence, grace, and strength so that we can be equipped, empowered, and enabled unto the tasks that He has given us.
No one can give or share what he does not have. And if we aren’t praying and experiencing God’s presence, how can we share it? To share grace, we must first receive it. To speak the Word, we must first receive it. To witness to the Lord, we have to know Him.
Jesus often had to hide in order to pray. Sometimes the only quiet place He could find was out on the lake. But Jesus did make time for prayer, and He invites the Apostles and us to do the same, not only despite the busyness of life, but because of it.
A Story: A priest friend of mine said that he once gave spiritual direction to a religious sister back in the 70s. At that time, it was common for people to say “my work is my prayer.” When this priest inquired of the good sister’s prayer life she answered, “Oh, I’m too busy to pray, but that’s OK, my work is my prayer; that’s my spirituality.” And he replied, “Sister, if you’re not praying, you don’t have a spirituality.” He got her to start praying for one hour a day. Some years later, he ran into at the airport. By now, she had moved on to become a major superior in her order. “How are you doing, Mother,” he asked. “Oh,” she replied, “I am very busy!” He cringed, but then she added, “I’m so busy these days that I have to spend two hours a day praying!”
Now there’s a smart woman! When we’re being foolish we say, “I’m too busy to pray.” When we’re being smart we say, “I’m so busy that I need to pray more.”
Jesus made prayer a priority. Prayer is the rest that strengthens us for the task; it is the refreshment that gives us new vigor and zeal.
IV. The Power of Pious Prayer – The text says that after Jesus spent this time alone with the Apostles on the boat, they reached the other shore. And sure enough, the crowd was there waiting for them. But Jesus and the Apostles had been refreshed and were now well-rested. Jesus, refreshed and renewed, saw the vast crowd and began to teach them at great length.
Prayer has that effect. In drawing close to God, who is love, we are better equipped to love others. Jesus, though He never lacked love for them, models this renewal for us. The text says that upon seeing the crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them.
An aside – The Greek word used is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai), which means “to be moved with compassion.” The English word “pity” often carries with it a condescending tone. But what happens here is that Jesus sees them, loves them, and has compassion for their state. The religious leaders in Jerusalem have largely abandoned them, considering them “the great unwashed.” But Jesus loves them and teaches them at great length.
For us, it often takes many years and lots of prayer to equip our hearts in this way. One of the signs that grace and prayer are having their effect is that our love for others, even for the multitudes, grows deeper, more compassionate, more patient, and more merciful. This takes great prayer and long hours of sitting at the Lord’s feet and learning from Him.
But here is the power that prayer bestows: we should be more fully equipped for our mission, more zealous, and more loving. The rest afforded by prayer rejuvenates our better nature and helps it to grow.
So here are four teachings on prayer. Jesus found time to pray; He made prayer a priority. How about you?