Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Today we mark the 4th Sunday after Pentecost. Since these numbered Sundays between Pentecost and Advent do not concern a particular mystery of Our Lord’s life such as His birth, death or resurrection, the Gospels relate various episodes in His life. Today’s Gospel recounts the calling of Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ best loved apostles, by means of a miraculous catch of fish.
There are two miraculous catches of fish in the Gospels: this one from Luke at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry, and the other from John after the Resurrection. They have some notable similarities in their details: the apostles fish all night long without any success; then Jesus appears and tells them to try again and then they catch an overwhelming amount. The difference regards Jesus’ location, for in the first occurrence, Our Lord is with the apostles in the boat, while in the second, he is on the shore. As St. Gregory the Great explains, Jesus’ position in the two miracles is relative to his human nature, for in the first occurrence he is toiling with the apostles on the earth, willingly subject to the threat of suffering and death, but after his Resurrection, he is impassible and therefore stands on the land. For the sea represents the changeability of this life and its misery and sorrow, while the land signifies the firmness and peace of the life to come.
The significance of this event for our own lives is that we often seem to labor to no purpose, to fish all night and come up empty. But these accounts of the apostles show us that this is a normal feature of the Christian life and so, with God’s grace, must be accepted and understood as much as possible. Peter, James and John were fishermen; fishing was the way they earned their livelihood; therefore they were doing God’s will in going fishing. Though they caught nothing, if their labor was done with a worthy intention in mind, their labor was pleasing to God, even it was not pleasing to them because of its perceived lack of success.
Then Jesus appears and tells them to resume doing the same thing they had been doing, and in an instant they achieve much more than they accomplished in hours of toil. Moreover, this happened to the apostles twice, at very different stages in their faith in Our Lord, both when they needed a miracle to increase their faith, as we heard today, and when they had sufficient faith to risk their lives for Christ after his Resurrection. So this movement of God’s Providence happens to all, beginners and advanced. Why, then, does God choose to operate in this way?
He acts in this way to counter our pride and to increase our humility. He told Adam that because of his sin his work would occur by the sweat of his brow and that the ground will yield thistles and thorns instead of the crops he desired. Though we are sanctified by grace, we still bear this penalty, even when our intentions are good. This is so we will not attribute the good things that occur to ourselves but to God. And once we believe this with firmness, He can more readily work through us, for He knows we will not attribute the good achieved to ourselves, but to Him, and thus increase in love and gratitude rather than in pride and self-love. The greatest Saints are those who rely most upon God, fully aware of their own weakness and fragility.
Thus a certain degree of failure helps us to grow in holiness, and God knowing this, brings it about more than we would like. If we succeeded each time we set out to accomplish something, we would grow further from God rather than closer to Him. Hence the age-old problem of why the wicked prosper is answered in a way by realizing that as they prosper they grow more certain of their own worth and less reliant upon God and thus further and further from Him, which is the worst penalty a human being can suffer. Whenever pride increases, our distance from God also increases. This is also why the self-assuredness and seeming invincibility of youth yields to the struggles and failures of middle age: if it were not for this, no man would be saved. Pride would reign and grace would be despised.
And so it is that fruitless labor is not a sign of rejection but of divine favor, provided we give ourselves over to the mystery. Our failure should remind us that perhaps we did not begin by asking God to bless our work or that we relied too much upon our own strength. And if our intentions were wholly good in undertaking the work, then we should wait patiently for His blessing upon it, and be grateful when it comes.
Therefore it is providential that this Gospel falls on the same liturgical day as Father’s Day. Parenting is both the most important and most difficult task in the world, and it often means one labors night after night and seems to catch nothing. Children are loved and taught good things and disciplined, and yet it often yields bad behavior. But if Christ is allowed to work, that is, if parents give Our Lord the opportunity to dwell in their children’s souls through grace and the sacraments and strive to provide an environment in which they can grow in love of God and in virtue, there will be a miraculous catch.
There will be always be failure in parenting, for sinners are raising sinners, but better that there be failure and subsequent reliance upon God than apparent success and subsequent pride. Better to entrust your fears to the Lord in prayer than rely upon your own ingenuity and prudence. That is also why even Saints have had badly behaved children, to show even them, that as St. Paul says, “I planted, Apollo watered, but God gave the increase.” If we were granted sure success in the formation of minds and hearts, we would have cause for the greatest degree of pride, for there is nothing greater in a human life than to be the cause of the holiness of another person, but it would also be a foolish pride for only God can do such things; we merely give ourselves to Him as willing but damaged instruments. Moreover, it is good for parents to realize that their plan for their children might not be the same as the divine plan; He can make good come out of evil more infallibly than can human parents and so He often does something much more marvelous in the heart of the child than a parent could wish or imagine. Augustine is a case in point: St. Monica only wanted him to be married properly and return to the Faith; instead a sinner and heretic became a monk and one of the greatest theologians the Church has known.
Even for those of us who are not parents, there is still a lesson in the apparently fruitless labor of Peter, James and John. Among the desert fathers, there is an adage that we are our own parents, for we, by our cooperation or rejection of grace, give birth to virtue and vice within our own souls. And there is also the fact that most of us begin to make meaningful, conscious moral choices only when we leave home and realize that if we want to be prudent, just, courageous and temperate we must choose such things; our parents’ suggestions and coercion no longer suffice. In this place where we shape our own character, many times our work to cultivate virtue, seems to be nothing more than a pointless exercise. And if this is the case, we should ask ourselves what God is teaching us through our seeming lack of growth in holiness.
The first question to ask is, do we pray? Do we pray for specific things? How many people go on a diet to lose weight, which is to grow in temperance, and never think to ask God for His grace to practice self-control? And if we do pray, do we pray consistently and from the heart, truly humbling ourselves? And if we have done these things, then we are called to trust in divine Providence—the catch of fish will come, but we may have to go fishing a few more nights before we are given success. This patient waiting on the Lord has many fruitful results: we learn to have mercy on others who struggle to attain virtue, we gain wisdom we can share with others who are discouraged by their seeming lack of progress, and most of all, we learn that when we are weak, we are strong. No less a spiritual giant than St. Paul said when writing to the Corinthians, “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Today, then, we should try to imagine the prayer of Peter as coming from the lips of a parent rather than a fisherman, a parent trying to bring forth the fruit of virtue either in his own soul or in the souls of others. “Lord, I have labored all night, but I have had no success. I toiled out of love for you; may you bless my work. Please give your blessing for souls are at stake; forgive my negligence and give glory to your name by overcoming it. Help me to grow in humility and gratitude; make me your instrument.” May the Lord graciously hear our prayer and grant us to be counted among Peter, James, John and all the Saints and thus live with Him forever in the kingdom of heaven, in the New Jerusalem.
Feast of the Holy Trinity
Dearly beloved, today we celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Trinity; it is true we gather each Sunday to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but today we consider the mystery more profoundly. Today we leave aside the earthly deeds of Christ, and meditate upon the mystery of God as He has revealed Himself to us.
The postcommunion prayer for today’s Mass is a fitting place to begin our contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity. As in every Mass, the priest prays for the whole congregation after Communion, asking for a particular grace for those who have received. At today’s Mass he prays, “Lord our God, may the reception of this sacrament and the confession of the everlasting holy Trinity and undivided unity of the same profit us unto health of body and mind.” This is a provocative prayer—we are surely familiar with the idea that Christ’s Body and Blood can give us health of mind and body, but do we think of our belief in the Holy Trinity as also being life-giving? That the knowledge we have, though imperfect, of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit actually gives our minds and bodies vigor and strength?
Human beings are constituted to have contact with reality by way of our intellects, and the greater the reality we know, the more life it gives to our minds. When the mind is fed by the being and truth and goodness found in higher realities, the joy that the mind knows flows into the body; thus it is that martyrs, having intense experience of God, can be happy despite the suffering they experience in their bodies. Tied to this is that we are made to know the essences of things, what is at the heart of a thing or an issue or a question. Thus mind and body are rejuvenated by thinking about higher things, while they are wearied by details. The more we must tend to the material details of our life, the more tired we will become, for we are made for higher considerations. That is why one way of addressing our unhappiness is to focus on the things that will really make us happy, and then cut out all the unnecessary things that weary us.
The greatest thing a human being can know is God, the origin of all reality, the source of all truth. In times past, before the coming of Christ, men rejoiced to know something of God: that He exists, that He created the world, that He is eternal and unchangeable. In fact, it was the sign of the greatest cultures that their theology was the most advanced, and this was known in that the culture worshipped one God who was immaterial and the creator of all that is. We have the much greater privilege of God having revealed Himself to us: we know not only that He is one, but that He is also three—one in His divine substance, three in persons. This is not something we could have known unless God had revealed it to us, and thus it is a gift on His part, a sign of His love that we must cherish and cause to grow.
God’s revelation of Himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is analogous to a human person telling us about his heart. Many know the exterior actions and words of that person, but it is the person’s choice to reveal his heart to you or to me. In the same way, that God is one can be known by all, and most of the world’s religions acknowledge God’s unity and uniqueness, but only one, the true religion, acknowledges and worships the three persons in that unity. The fact that we today believe in the divinity and equality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a tremendous gift of God. Jesus preached this truth two thousand years ago, revealing it to a few privileged souls at that time, but God continues to will that new souls should know it in each generation, and we have been chosen to be among those souls. All of this despite the damage done to the Church over the centuries and the current state of unbelief in the Church and in the world. God has revealed His inner life to humankind, and then He has chosen to reveal it to each one of us by willing that we should be given the gift of faith in the Trinity and have that faith nourished by prayer and the sacraments and by the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
So we should think long and hard today about what it is like to reveal our heart to another and get no response. We cannot react to God’s self-revelation with apathy; doing so is an offense to God and it also hurts us, for we take lightly the truth that will make our minds and hearts happy for all eternity if we but put in the effort to contemplate what God has told us of Himself. When we fall in love or when a friendship grows, we find that each new thing we learn of the person we love causes us to desire to know more about the person, which in turn causes us to love more. But love never grows when we remain content with what we know and never pursue; the man must pursue the woman he loves and get her to tell him more of her heart if he ever hopes to be her husband; the friend must pursue the friend by conversation and letter and time spent together. So also we must pursue God—He has told us the most profound thing concerning Himself: that He is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and now it is our duty to ask Him to tell us more, to strive to know Him more deeply so that we may love Him more perfectly.
Now you might say to me, that is all good and well, but it is impractical. How can I contemplate the Trinity? It is too abstract for me. Let me give one example. The best philosophers in the ancient world knew that there was one God and not many gods. This was also the truth emphasized by Moses and those who were faithful Jews. In the coming of Christ, God has now revealed Himself to us as three persons, three persons who are distinguished by their relation to one another. Thus not only is unity and simplicity the basis and source of all reality, but so is relationship. It is an amazing thing to learn that at the heart of God is the everlasting union of three persons. Since we are made in God’s image, it shows us that we are made to be in relation to others in a lasting way, and when we are not, we suffer because we are not imaging God as we were made to do. This first means that the highest type of relationship we can have is of a spiritual nature, for the relationships in God are based upon His intellect and will. Thus friendships are most perfect when they are founded in union of mind and heart rather than upon physical attraction or pleasure. This also means that being in relation to others as God is in relation is open to every human being, even if marriage is not possible. Spiritual friendship, based upon love of God and the good things He has made, is friendship which is most like God, and therefore gives us the most happiness.
Added to this is that the lifelong commitments of marriage and religious vows image the eternal unity of the three persons; while we choose to make the commitment at a point in time, nevertheless we agree to honor our vows for the entirety of this life and that makes it have a quasi-eternal quality. A culture scared of commitment, unwilling to make vows or honor them, is not acting in the image of God; it is isolating itself from the very thing that would make it more divine. This also means that we have a duty of charity to those who are alone in this life, especially if we have been blessed with a happy marriage or good, life-giving friendships, for it is not good that man be alone, and this is in a way because it is not good that God be alone. If God is in relationship for all eternity and we are made in His image, we should reach out to those who are isolated by no desire of their own, those who struggle to be accepted, those whose lives did not go the way they had planned or hoped. Community is the eternal reality of God; we are made in His image, and thus charity should impel us to know and love those who are alone in this world. By all of this you can see that a brief meditation on the eternal relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can yield much fruit for thought and for action.
Therefore on this Trinity Sunday, may we carefully consider in our hearts how we can be more attentive to God’s revelation of Himself to us, and how that contemplation can become a regular part of our lives. Let us above all be thankful today that God has revealed Himself to us. We no longer have to struggle and fumble to know something about God as have so many generations of mankind before us. Let us thank the Spirit for having been our unseen Teacher for so many years, the gentle companion of our lives, the Consoler in our times of sorrow. Let us thank the Son for having taking upon Himself a human nature, for having died upon the Cross, and for showing us the way back to Our Father in heaven. And let us thank the Father for having sent the Son and the Spirit, for having sought us when we were lost, and for not letting us perish despite our sins.
I close with the prayer of St. Augustine upon finishing his work on the Trinity: “O Lord our God, we believe in Thee, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For the Truth would not say, Go, baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, unless Thou were a Trinity. … O Lord my God, my one hope, hearken to me, lest through weariness I be unwilling to seek Thee, but that I may always ardently seek Thy face. Give me strength to seek, who has made me find Thee, and has given the hope of finding Thee more and more. My strength and my weakness are in Thy sight: preserve the one, and heal the other. My knowledge and my ignorance are in Thy sight; where Thou have opened to me, receive me as I enter; where Thou have closed, open to me as I knock. May I remember Thee, understand Thee, love Thee. Increase these things in me, until Thou renew me wholly in the life to come. Amen.”
Cibavit eos ex adipe frumenti. Alleluia! He fed them with finest wheat, Alleluia.
Beloved, with these opening words of today’s introit we have returned to the joys and alleluias of the Paschal Mysteries. For today, with joy unbounded, the Church celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi, a liturgical celebration of the real and substantial presence of Jesus Christ among us, bequeathed to His Mystical Bride, our Holy Mother the Church, during the Last Supper, the night before the Lord suffered for the world’s redemption.
Because of the grave solemnity of Holy Week and the penetrating sorrow of Good Friday it is not possible to celebrate on Maundy Thursday the institution of the Mass and the abiding presence of Our Lord and Redeemer in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar with the unparalleled joy and splendor which Catholic faith would wish.
This liturgical festival owes its origin and universal appeal to the age of Catholic Faith, the High Middle Ages of 13th century Europe. First promoted by Blessed Julian of Cornillon it was raised to the status of a universal feast of the Roman Church by Pope Urban IV who commissioned one no less than Saint Thomas Aquinas to compose an Office and Mass for its celebration. From the texts and melodies of that genius of mystical and theological insight come all the Eucharistic hymns and antiphons with which Catholics are so familiar.
This festival owes its immense historical popularity to the magnificent procession of the Blessed Sacrament which ordinarily accompanies the Mass. Winding its way through the streets of the temporal city, the procession – as the Archbishop and faithful of Saint Louis will observe this afternoon from the great basilica on Lindell Avenue – gives public witness to the abiding presence of the Lord with His Church on earth and God’s pledge for a place in glory for each who believes and acts on the truths which His Christ has revealed.
The Liturgical Sacrifice – and the Most Blessed Sacrament, the abiding presence of Christ constituting the Sacrament of that Sacrifice – is intimately bound to the life of Church. In truth all that faith seeks and does depends on it, and through it finds its expression and fulfillment. Through this Sacrifice and Sacrament Christ Himself is rendered present on the altars of the Church and the fullness of grace is imparted by God to the world here below. In this Sacrifice and Sacrament Christ offers to the Father through the Holy Spirit His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in an infinite and pleasing sacrifice of praise and glory. And through Holy Communion Jesus imparts Himself personally and intimately by sacramental means which, when received worthily by penitent Christians forgives sins, increases divine charity and gives us pledge for future glory.
In today’s Gospel reading we have a prefiguring of this immense nourishment of souls through time and space. For Jesus came into this world for no other purpose than to communicate to men the divine life of the Most Holy Trinity – that ineffable Mystery to which this glorious Feast of the Incarnation is so intimately connected. Faced with the impossibility of remaining in this world until the end of time, the Lord Jesus foresaw and provided through a marvelous, sacramental means, His perpetual presence among us. Not only would He not leave us orphans through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus deigned to leave Himself as well.
My flesh is meat indeed, my Blood is true drink. This is my Body and my Blood. He who eats my flesh and drinks my Blood abides in me and I in him. Such, indeed, is this Blessed Food come down from Heaven. It is not like the manna which your forefathers ate in the desert and are now dead. He who eats this bread – my flesh, I Who am the One, True and Living, God – he who eats this bread will live forever.
Beloved, what other god, what other religion offers such bountiful goodness as Christianity? Our Lord and God lies here, hidden under the outward signs of bread and wine, here in the Glorious, and Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar: Jesus crucified, Jesus Victim, Jesus . . . Host. This Jesus is God – He is the lover of our souls.
Beloved children, today you are to receive this wondrous God into your soul for the very first time. Never forget that the outward appearance of the bread of this Sacrament bears within its very being, hidden from our eyes but radiant to our Faith – it bears – for it is – God Himself.
This same God loves you and seeks you – to such an extent that He humbled Himself and came to us from inaccessible light in glory; He who is God humbled Himself to be subject to human parents and all the sorrows of this life only to die at the conspiration of faithless priests. His love is simply prodigious. This Jesus, this God, is always waiting for you in this Sacrament. He is there, ever ready to pardon, ready to forgive, eager to love – if we would be humble our hearts to receive Him.
Beloved children of God, Jesus seeks to abide in your souls, in your hearts made simple and pure by His abiding grace. Seek Him, go to Him, pray to Him, love and adore Him, for He is our God: in Him alone can our restless hearts find lasting peace and consolation.
Small wonder then, the words of today’s glorious Mass sequence:
Sion lift thy voice and sing,
Praise thy Savior and thy King
Praise Him with hymns, thy Shepard true.
Strive thy best to praise Him well,
Yet doth He all praise excel,
None can ever reach His due.
And so it is that by God’s prevenient designs we are the recipients of His abounding mercies. Through the perduring sign and effect of His Paschal Mysteries we are fed with a manna which exceeds in every way that by which our forefathers were fed in the desert. This new and eternal Bread come down from Heaven is our viaticum in this life and pledge of glory for the world to come. Let us, therefore, resolve to receive Our Lord worthily, with humility, ever open to His formation in truth and moral goodness. By living on the merit of this heavenly food we have the Lord’s own promise that it will bring us to the vision of God in the glory of heaven.
O God, Who in this wondrous Sacrament hath left unto us a memorial of Thy Passion, grant, we beseech Thee, so to venerate the Sacred Mysteries of Thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of Thy redemption. Amen. Alleluia!
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Easter
Amen, amen, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, He will give it to you.
Today is the last Sunday before the Ascension, and as the Church has been doing for the past three weeks, She prepares us for that mystery by taking the Gospel from John, where he reports what Our Lord said at the Last Supper. Today’s selection is principally about prayer, with Jesus telling the Apostles that now their prayer will be particularly efficacious, for it will be made in Jesus’ name, and since those who pray in His name love Him, the Father loves them and readily grants their petitions.
Those of us who have real experience of prayer know that this Gospel message is a hard one to understand. The meaning itself is rather straightforward--God hears the prayers of those who pray in Jesus’ name—but the actual lived experience of this message is different. It seems God does not answer our prayers, even good, selfless prayers; prayers begged for someone else’s good or for something we need that is necessary or seems necessary for our salvation. And as Our Lord says in the parable of the Sower, many fall away in time of temptation—they lose the faith precisely because they feel their prayers go unanswered.
So how can we best accept this saying of the Lord, “Amen, amen, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, He will give it to you”?
First of all, we must read this verse in conjunction with the rest of the Lord’s teaching on prayer. Three passages come to mind: the Our Father, Martha and Mary, and the egg and the scorpion. The Our Father is the only prayer that Jesus taught His disciples and so it functions as His greatest teaching on prayer. All its petitions are of a spiritual nature: we ask that God’s kingdom come to fruition, that all would honor His name, that we be forgiven our sins and be delivered from temptation and evil. The request for our daily bread, the only petition which seems worldly, has been interpreted by the Fathers as referring to the Eucharist. Even if someone would argue it refers to our daily bodily needs, it is still the case that the great majority of the petitions concern spiritual needs, not material needs. And a third of the petitions concern the glory of God, not us.
With Martha and Mary, we see one person busily working at worldly concerns and the other person sitting quietly with Him. When Martha asks for the Lord to do something about that, He replies that Mary has chosen the better part and will not be deprived of it. He does not honor Martha’s request because it is asked badly and she has not prioritized properly. In contrast, the Lord listened to Mary, for the Church says on her feast day that it was her tears, not Martha’s, that moved Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead. Because she sat at the feet of the Lord and listened carefully, rather than deciding that earthly considerations were more important, Mary learned how to ask the Lord for what she needed or wanted. Thus we learn from these two sisters that our petitions must be grounded in time spent with the Lord; contemplation must precede petition, because otherwise we will ask badly and then misunderstand when prayers seemingly go unanswered.
Finally, there is the egg and the scorpion. In the 11th chapter of Luke, Jesus says, “What father among you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone; instead of a fish give him a serpent; or instead of an egg, give him a scorpion?” This is a key passage on prayer, and an important complement to Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel. The son asks his father for something that will nourish him: he asks for the bread, the fish and the egg because he is hungry and needs to be fed. Likewise we ask Our Father for things we need in order to survive bodily and spiritually. When we ask for such things, the Father will give something appropriate; He may not give bread when we ask for it, but He will give something nourishing and not give something wholly contrary or destructive. To chew on a stone would break our teeth, and snakes and scorpions can bite and kill us. But maybe we don’t need bread, but a salad, because we eat too many carbs; or we have high cholesterol, so instead of an egg, He offers us tofu. He gives us something good, but it not might be what we wanted.
We can now apply these teachings on prayer to three very common petitions we make in the Lord’s name, petitions that often seem to go unanswered. First, our material needs. Many of you have very legitimate material needs: we have mouths to fill, bills to pay. Some of you have continual suffering in this realm. So why does the Lord allow us to remain in this state? The answer here is hopefully obvious: asking for financial security is akin to asking for a scorpion. Being comfortable in our finances is almost always a corrosive agent for our faith. The first world, where many people are wealthy enough to live comfortably, is where the faith has been lost; where people continue to struggle to obtain what they need, the faith flourishes. Those who are rich can control their lives, and so think they have no need of God. The typical American couple with two kids, four cars and lavish vacations all made possible by the habitual use of birth control illustrates this fact. They have no time for God. As St. James says in his letter: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Having kids makes us poor, but that is what life is about—living our vows in a way in which we become more reliant upon God, not less reliant. Vows help us to find out who we really are and thereby we also learn who God really is.
Thus we should not pray for financial security, but for sufficient means that we do not live in constant distress over money, for that can also trouble us enough that we struggle to pray. As it says in Proverbs, “Give me neither beggary, nor riches: give me only the necessaries of life: Lest perhaps being filled, I should be tempted to deny, and say: Who is the Lord? or being compelled by poverty, I should steal, and forswear the name of my God.” Should God will, however, that we remain in this kind of poverty, we should rejoice, for He has made us worthy of the Beatitudes. He said, Blessed are you poor, and Woe to you rich, and so for any way in which we share in the cross of financial worry we should be thankful, because it shows God does not want us to lose our souls over love of money and comfort.
A second type of petition is that for the conversion of sinners, especially sinners in our own families and among our friends. This is of course a very worthy prayer and one that has no downside to it from our own motivation in uttering it. God infallibly hears this kind of prayer and sends grace to the sinner to convert his will to good, but the sinner does not always allow his will to be converted. Each of us knows what it is like to reject God’s grace, and the sinners for whom we pray, those who have fallen away from the faith or who have not yet believed, all such sinners can also reject God’s grace. Thus with our prayers for them, we must persevere. We can think of our prayers as being the cause of God sending grace, and each time we pray, we hope that the defense of the sinner against God grows weaker and weaker until finally he or she is overcome. It is like the sunlight gradually melting ice and snow; if we did not pray for their conversion, such persons would remain in the shadow, untouched by the rays of the sun. In this type of prayer, then, it is not a case of God not answering our prayers, but of the divine respect for human freedom, and the sinner’s ability to fight against God despite His grace given at our request.
A final type of petition is for our own conversion. This too is a worthy prayer, that we should no longer sin, change our bad habits, and grow in holiness. Two things should be said here: first, sometimes God allows weakness and even sin to remain in a person’s life for the sake of that person’s humility. God knows that if he were sinless, he would be bloated with conceit, and thus it is better to allow him to fall into habitual sin rather than be overcome with the worst sin, that of pride, for nothing separates us from God as thoroughly as pride does. When we fall into sin, we learn how to have mercy on others, and how to rely upon God, two lessons without which we cannot be saved. Second, our desire for something grows the more we must ask for it, and it is not uncommon that when we begin asking for some grace or growth in virtue, we ask rather weakly, without much effort, hoping that because we are asking for something good, God will grant it quickly. So in order that we will not despise His gifts or underestimate His goodness, He makes us work for it. As St. Jude says, we are like “waterless clouds, carried along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn”; so being forced to pray for perseverance is itself a gift from God.
Tied to this is asking for the means to live a holy life; for instance, asking for a spouse. If prayer to grow in holiness is good, this prayer seems even better, for we ask for the means by which certain occasions of sin will be taken away, occasions like loneliness, despair, apathy. Why does God not answer such prayers? There is no easy answer here, but we should consider that many times God postpones a natural gift to give a supernatural one; He thwarts a natural desire to provoke a supernatural one. Marriage stems from a natural desire for love, for intimacy, for support, for companionship; the blessing of children also stems from a natural desire. Sometimes God does not allow these things to take place because He is doing something more wonderful; He is not giving us a salad in place of bread or tofu in place of an egg, but a fine wine or a perfectly cooked steak or real Italian gelato. God is our Father, and He knows how to give good gifts to His children. If He is keeping natural happiness from us, He is storing up supernatural happiness; if He has denied us a natural relationship we rightly desire, there is a supernatural one He is causing to grow that would not otherwise be. If we do not yet understand, we should not busy ourselves like Martha in seeking an answer, but spend time at His feet like Mary. She received all the answers she ever desired by drawing near to Christ, and when she wanted nothing more than Him, finally her life made sense and she was filled with His peace.
So, in our struggle to understand God’s will for our lives and to trust in His providence, let us call upon these two blessed sisters who knew the Lord in this life and who now both sit at His feet in paradise, that they will teach us how to pray well and with perseverance. Though He rebuked Martha, He loved her dearly and caused her to be one of pillars upon whom the Church in France grew to such great heights. And His love for Mary is well known, she who washed His feet with her tears and stayed beside Him throughout His Passion. May their prayers strengthen and teach us that the Father will indeed grant anything we ask in Jesus’ name in accordance with His wisdom and with our supernatural good in mind. And then in heaven Martha and Mary will show us all the ways in which our prayers were answered and we didn’t see or understand, and our gratitude and love for God shall know no end.