23 July 2017

The Weeds of Prayer

16th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

In prayer we are “beggars before God.” Having nothing, we ask for everything, and receive what we need. If we cannot quite put words to our needs, “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” Like the rest of creation, we too long to be raised to perfection, to be made complete again in the presence of God. But until we are given the beatific vision, we live and move in this world – needing, asking, receiving, giving; not knowing perfectly what comes next. Not knowing what comes next can be a source of anxiety or a source of freedom. If we trust in God, fully surrendering ourselves to His providence, not knowing what comes next is freeing. How we pray in this freedom is simple: “Lord, your will be done. I receive all You have to give!” Prayer becomes more complicated when we hold back, when we hide away bits of control, little needs to direct and dominate: “Lord, your will be done (if your will is to allow me to do my will), and I receive all You have to give (if what You have to give is what I want)!” This is not the prayer of a beggar. It IS the prayer of a willful child who falsely believes he/she knows perfectly what comes next. We don't know and acting on that not- knowing can kill us. Both physically and spiritually.

Jesus proposes to the crowds a parable about the wisdom of not acting in ignorance. He tells them (and us) to allow the weeds to grow among the wheat. We can't always tell the difference btw the weeds and the wheat. Pulling up the weeds might damage the wheat. Let them both grow and the harvesters will separate them – wheat to the barn, weeds to the fire. Full knowledge of which is which comes at the end not the beginning. The same is true for the differences btw our wants and our needs. If I pray in ignorance for what I need, I may be praying for what I want instead. And when I don't get what I think I need, I begin to doubt God's providence. Maybe I stop praying. Maybe I stop believing. Maybe – even – I turn against God b/c He has failed to meet my “needs.” My ignorance – my “not-knowing” – can cause me to stumble along the Way. . .unless. . .I know that I am ignorant and choose instead to surrender myself to God's providence and receive whatever He sends my way. “Lord, your will be done. I receive all You have to give!” The mature pray-er begins and ends in ignorance, allowing the Harvester to separate his wants from his needs, the wheat from the weeds.

What are the weeds in prayer? Jesus says, “While everyone was asleep [the farmer's] enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat. . .” Notice that everyone was asleep. They weren't keeping vigil. No one was on watch. And b/c no one was watching, the farmer's enemy was free to sow weeds. When we are not paying attention to our spiritual lives, when we are living life as if God doesn't exist, the Enemy is free to sow his weeds. His favorite weed to sow is the weed we'll call “Self-Sufficiency,” also known as “I Don't Any Help.” This weed tempts us to believe that we already know what the problem is and how to solve it. It tempts us – in our pride – to turn away from God's providence and rely on our own ingenuity. Or to tell God what the problem is and how He ought to fix it. Given enough time to grow this weed produces fruit called, “I Need a Hole Plugged.” God and His providence become little more than an emergency yelp when things go bad. There's a way to render these weeds powerless over your prayer. Don't pull them! Let them grow. But render them powerless by admitting upfront that you don't know what you need, desire God above all else, and receive all the He sends you with praise and thanksgiving. 
Paul lays all this bare for us in his letter to the Romans: “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought. . .” Paul is not suggesting here that we've forgotten the words to our prayers, or that we're praying the wrong prayers. He's telling us that our weakness – our ignorance (for we do not know how to pray as we ought) – is aided by the Spirit. We are strengthened in prayer by the Spirit, guided by the Spirit to struggle with our ignorance and surrender to the providence of God. Prayer is not a matter of overcoming not-knowing or learning all that we ought to know. Prayer is about placing ourselves – freely and generously – in the path of the Spirit so that He may take us up and deliver us – needs and all – into the presence of the One Who loves us. If we are tightly bound by sin, or diverted by disordered passions, or driven away by an ugly pride, we cannot throw ourselves in the path of the Spirit. Nor can we pray. Nor can we receive all that God has to give us. This is why Christ – “the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit” – sits at the right hand of the Father and “intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will.” What we do not know and cannot know about our own needs and about God's will, Christ knows. And he is there to hear us even when all we can do is groan.

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