The Scripture readings at Mass this past weekend reminded us of the power of prayer. It’s an important lesson, for after all, without prayer the Christian life is an empty shell; it has no soul.
The first reading, from the Book of Exodus, presents the intriguing image of Moses, on a hilltop, his hands raised in prayer, supervising the battle between the Israelites and the army of Amalek. The report says that “as long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.” Eventually Moses grew tired holding his hands in the air, so first he sat down, and then he had his assistants prop up his hands until sunset, when the Israelites finally prevailed and “mowed down Amalek and his people.”
In the Gospel of the day from St. Luke, Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow who pestered and nagged the judge until he delivered a verdict in her favor. Jesus used the story to teach us the “necessity of praying always without becoming weary.”
Reflecting on these readings, it seems to me that prayer is powerful and effective for three reasons.
First, prayer reminds us of the primacy of God in our lives. In other words, it’s an expression of our faith.
Coming out of the pharmacy recently, an older gentleman stopped me and said, “You know Father, if we prayed more, we wouldn’t need these pills. God would keep us healthy.” I answered that he was probably right, but that while God will certainly take care of us, He wants us to take care of ourselves too.
But isn’t it true — how often, and how quickly we turn to God at times of natural disasters and national crises — hurricanes, earthquakes, plane crashes and terrorist attacks? Even the most cynical and secular among us, those who typically ridicule religion and disdain anything spiritual, put aside their pride and call upon God in these desperate moments, reaching for Him as a spiritual fire-fighter, someone always there to put out the flames of our latest crisis.
Our prayer on those dark days is an admission that our human resources are limited, that we can’t solve every problem, and that when all is said and done, God’s still in charge.
Second, our prayer increases our solidarity with other people and makes us more aware of their needs.
It can be discouraging, even anguishing, to watch the terrible suffering of our brothers and sisters around the globe and feel that there’s nothing we can do to help.
I think, for example, of the horrendous suffering in Syria, where millions of people have lost their homes and thousands of children have died from the incessant bombing and street fighting. Have you seen some of the heart-wrenching pictures of those poor little kids?
I think of the beleaguered souls in Haiti, a country of indescribable poverty, who have suffered another terrible natural disaster in Hurricane Matthew and now have nothing — no shelter, no food or water, no medicine, no prospect of a better tomorrow — and are living in mud puddles in the middle of the street.
Add to these global crises the personal problems that inevitably come our way – the illnesses, the financial insecurity, marriage and family problems, the death of a loved one — and our prayer list grows longer every day.
We can and should respond to all of these needs with generous charitable outreach and personal support of course, but we should also pray. Prayer unites us as a human family and connects us to one another spiritually. In giving prayer, and in accepting prayer, we are reminded that even in the worst of moments we are never alone.
Finally, prayer gives us a sense of perspective.
So often we get so caught up in the drama of the present moment that we forget the lessons of the past and we ignore the hope of the future. So often today’s problems seem like the end of the world, when, in fact, they’re just another pothole in the road of life.
It’s like looking at a mosaic, a picture formed of thousands or millions of little pieces of glass, marble or stone. If you get too close to the mosaic, and press your nose against it, you can’t see the whole picture. All you see are the tiny little fragments that make up the mosaic. You need to stand back a little to see how all those little pieces come together — the big and small ones, the rough and smooth ones, the light and dark ones — to form a beautiful picture.
Prayer gives us that perspective. It helps us to stand back a little bit from the events of everyday life to see better the whole canvas of our lives, and to see how God, the Master Artist, is creating something beautiful in us. Prayer helps us to remember the past, understand the present, and move into the future with renewed confidence and hope.
Jesus has told us that we should never be afraid to ask for what we need. So, like Moses on the hilltop, keep your hands raised in prayer. Don’t give up. Prayer is the oxygen of the Christian life. We really can’t survive without it. It helps us now, and, like the “yellow brick road” in the Land of Oz, it points the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.