Asking Prayer

Christian art from 3rd century, in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla, depicting “Orans,” which is the symbol of the church interceding with hands outstretched.

I heard a fantastic homily, while on retreat last June, on Jesus’ words: “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” Most homiletic explanations of why we ask God for things I find to be confusing. But this preacher nailed it. He made some stunning points that I tried to capture later in my journal. As is my custom, I took the summary notes from the homily and synthesized them with my own prayerful reflection. I paste my notes here:

Although it is true that contemplative prayer, which is both a prayer of surrender to God’s action in the soul and a simple gaze on Truth, is considered the highest mode of God-loving prayer, intercessory prayer is the highest form of neighbor-loving prayer. The Catechism says it succinctly: “Asking on behalf of another [is] characteristic of a heart attuned to God’s mercy … in intercession, he who prays looks not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others, even to the point of praying for those who do him harm” (#2635). One who daily speaks to God on behalf of others is loving them well. It’s a very helpful complement to other forms of prayer that can easily devolve into an ego-focus on personal satisfaction. Some of the holiest people I’ve met in life — and holy here means for me what it means for Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange: “Having one’s thoughts populated more by considerations of the welfare of others than by considerations of one’s own welfare” — are those mostly older women who pray countless novenas for others’ intentions. The holy Scriptures tell us that even the Lord Himself in Paradise is not engaged in contemplation but intercession [Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:34]. Or think of John 17 — Jesus’ inner-Trinitarian prayer is all about us, not just God-alone absorption. Even St. Paul tells us that the deep prayer the Spirit teaches us is intercessory prayer [Romans 8:26]! The quality of one’s theological virtue of charity is to be judged proportionate to the quality of one’s neighor-oriented intercessory prayer.

But don’t think of intercession as trying to change God’s mind, or manipulate Him into doing your will. Behind our practice of petition there is a theology of shared governance. God has so designed the world that He wishes to have man participate in His governance of history. Man is the “priest of nature and of grace” whom God has fixed like a hinge between heaven and earth. God is a God of synergy, of collaboration, and not a unilateralist. That’s what the Incarnation proves. Jesus has two wills [human and divine] that operate only in conjunction. In the Incarnation we see an astounding fact: God does absolutely nothing apart from human cooperation. Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s way of dealing with creation. The re-creation of creation happens only in cooperation with man. The New Creation only comes about with human participation. And prayer is the most direct and intimate way we partcipate in God’s re-creative, redeeming work. Aquinas says that we ask, seek and knock not to change the divine disposition but to bring about what God has disposed to be achieved only by means of prayer. So when you pray, pray like the prayer of the Liturgy: big, broad and bold. The Liturgy is loaded with petitions. Pray them over!

Yes, of course we always ask for things according to God’s holy will — which means never asking against His nature; that is, we never ask for injustice to be done, or evil or for lies to triumph, or some such. But asking according to His will does not mean that He has already preordained every specific thing, which we then have to hope we magically know in advance when we ask. No! He genuinely wants us to contribute novelty and uniqueness to the unfolding of His will. But how He responds to our petition and incorporates our ideas and intentions? That’s ultimately His business. He’s the Master craftsman, the artist. What we must do in the end is submit our novel ideas and good intentions to His providential will. Deus providebit, “God will provide” according to His good pleasure; in unexpected ways mostly. Jesus did that kind of praying in the Garden [of Gethsemane]. He said, “Let this cup pass,” but then submitted His idea to the Father — “but not my will, thine.” The answer of the Father was wildly beyond human imagining: the Cross and Resurrection. These were actually the Father’s response to Jesus’ petitions. “Let this cup pass” happened as a Pass-over from death to life. So He was heard! … And Jesus prayed for His enemies to be pardoned — and He was heard! The Father laid the guilt and sin of His enemies on Him as the means to pardon them.

The Our Father, which is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request for a “prayer catechism,” is really one extended petition. It’s pure intercessory prayer. Seven petitions, actually. So clearly the Lord is highlighting for us that interceding is key to real Christian prayer that includes love of neighbor in it. It’s not just a nice or quaint pious practice. And I love Jesus’ little aside that punched home that prayer is not just a me-God thing, but a me-God-neighbor thing. He sticks in that little aside to the Our Father: “…as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Can’t you just give us a break God and let us be with you for a while and forget about those bastards out there? Oh, yes, we need to withdraw time and again to be refreshed by God. But real prayer has to always thrust us back into real life and yucky relationships, or it isn’t prayer in the Christian sense. To not engage in praying for others, especially difficult others, is really an escape from praying on God’s preferred prie-dieu, the Cross, which is where all Christian prayer eventually lands us.

But remember that all prayer is a gift, so if you don’t much fancy petitioning God ask Him to help you fall in love with it. Because He is clearly in love with it.

He ended with a passage from St. Isaac the Syrian that is beloved in the Eastern spiritual tradition:

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

We need

“The Good Samaritan,” Vincent van Gogh 1890.

Dear Synod Fathers:

As you debate and discuss, reflect and pray over the state of marriage and family life in our world, I simply ask that you keep before your mind’s eye the truly revolutionary vision of the Council given to the lay faithful: “All the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect” (LG 11).

The Council told us, the lay faithful, that our path to perfection and sanctity is tightly woven into the web of secular life, where we find ourselves everyday. There we are called to be salt, light and leaven; consecrators of the world and faithful stewards of the temporal order. It is there, deep in the heart of the world, that we discover our path to union with God and serve — by God’s mercy — as witnesses to a world made new in Jesus.

What we lay faithful need to receive from our shepherds is a clear and inspiring vision of what our world-leavening secular sanctity looks like and how we are to live it out. We especially need you to show us how to embody the Church’s social doctrine in our lives, for in it is our unique spiritual charter that awaits a new “secular” edition of the Way of Perfection. Help us to believe that our Cathedral is the public square, the marketplace, the workplace, the field and the home, and that our daily labors and leisures are the living sacrifices God seeks (Rom. 12:1).

We need to hear from you that all our faithful undertakings in the world are holy; that our dedication to marriage and family life is supremely noble; that ours is the great dignity of gathering earthly material for the heavenly Kingdom (GS 38); that our toils constitute the substance of the priestly oblation you offer in every Eucharistic Sacrifice. We need you to encourage us in the arduous work of building a Christ-culture in an increasingly Christ-less world. We need you to take our calling seriously and challenge us to embrace the truth that we are “called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (LG 40).

In a word, we need you to help us be saints.

Yet we are weak, we falter and we fail. We cry out with St. Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25).

We need our shepherds to speak to us with the Lord’s own compassionate voice and open to us without reserve the infinite treasuries of mercy that God has entrusted to the Church. That mercy, revealed from the Cross and poured out on Pentecost, was given us by God to heal us, give us a share in the divine life and conform us to the Truth, Jesus Christ.  Mercy, born of a crucified and risen God, gives unfailing hope to all whose lives, this side of heaven, are defined by unresolvable tragedy. Having hope that God-is-with-us in tragedy, and that He brings ultimate good out of a broken world, restrains in us the desire to eliminate tragedy by either destroying tragic lives or by tearing down the moral law that maintains tragic tensions.  As Pope Francis said so eloquently:

God doesn’t intervene to prevent the tragedies and sufferings of life. If we had a god who simply swooped down as some “deus ex machina” to prevent human tragedy and sinfulness, then religion and faith would simply be reduced to some form of magic or fate, and we would be helpless pawns on the chessboard of some whimsical god. Where is God in the midst of human tragedies? God is there in the midst of it all, weeping. This is our God who stands in deep, human solidarity with us, and through the glory of the Incarnation, embracing fully our human condition.

Fathers, we need you to teach us hope and trust in the midst of tragedy; to proclaim a mercy that does not dispense us from the demands of justice, but reconciles us to them; a mercy that does not shade us from the light of truth, but leads us from darkness into its healing rays; a mercy that does not confirm us in our sin, but pardons our sin and strengthens us in virtue; a mercy that does not abandon us to our dark prisons, but leads the captives to liberty; a mercy that does not leave us beaten and bleeding along the roadside, but tends to our wounds and restores us back to health; a mercy that does not indulge our weakness, but suffuses our weakness with Christ’s strength; a mercy that does not overlook our evils, but overcomes them.

Dear Synod Fathers, become for us in this Synod the very mission of Jesus here and now:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)

Then come out to share with us the good news, lead us into Jubilee and bid us: Go, be sent!

We are praying for you.


In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned,
that those saddened by the certainty of dying
might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come.
Indeed for your faithful, Lord,
life is changed not ended,
and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust,
an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven. — Preface I for the Mass of the Dead 

I am very grateful that my wife’s dear friend, Janet Bradford, was willing to share in this blog her very honest, intimate and moving testimonial about walking the journey to death with her mother, Linda Sue Brazier.

My Mother died September 16 at 3:15 of pancreatic cancer. I had the privilege, along with my four siblings, to do vigil with her beginning Sunday when a hospice bed was brought into my parent’s family room. We all camped out in varying spots in that room — the two reclining chairs, the couch, the love seat and two blown-up mattresses. Dad slept in his bed. I wondered when the last chance was he got to hold Mom? Mom was rarely alone. If she was she was asleep. Even then, someone was always close by. Maybe not in the same room but definitely in the house.

She started the death rattle on Sunday. We didn’t know what it was at first. We had witnessed her throwing up old blood and some liquid bowel. We all wanted to turn on the suction machine and suck it out. But we were cautioned not to do that unless we could see it in her mouth. We later learned it was bodily fluids collecting in the lungs that the lungs couldn’t expel any more. In a way I guess you could say she drowned in her own body fluids.

The early morning hours of the Wednesday she died, somewhere between 2:00 AM and 5:00 AM, we all could not sleep. By then we had been taking turns giving her morphine every two hours, trusting an alarm to wake us up. I believe we thought she would die in the night. We were all busy with our tablets or reading books wide awake yet exhausted. We didn’t want to miss her taking her last breath. The room was spiritually tense. I finally had enough of fighting sleep and knelt beside her saying a rosary — The Glorious Mysteries. When I got to The Assumption of Mary, I had become aware that Mom was living the fruit of that mystery — the grace of a happy death. Peace came to the room. It was almost as if it was the last thing I had to do besides see her die.

I had arranged a few days earlier, with her and Dad’s permission, for her to have the Last Rites and Holy Communion. She had confessed her sins. She even made a profession of faith with one of my now Baptist siblings. She had time with each one of her kids, speaking words of love and affirmation. She was very open to making sure her path to heaven was without any earthly obstacles. She was my model of how to be when dying. Joyful and ready.

All summer long God had been talking to me, telling me how much He loved me. Calling me “my darling,” inviting me to come see Him everyday in prayer, Mass or Adoration. I kept telling everyone it was a summer of mercy and grace. A summer of rest and peace. I had no idea I was being filled up with all the love I could hold to help me be ready for the battle I felt like I was in, once I learned the news of her cancer.

Traveling back and forth, the effort of getting along with my sisters and brother and their spouses, sorting through all of Mom’s dishes, jewelry, clothes etc…cooking, cleaning, laundry, sleepless nights, long days, people constantly around me (I am an introvert), eating all the wrong kinds of food (kindly folks kept bringing lots of carbs, sugar, and fried protein), keeping up with work demands and trying to respond in a timely fashion to those reaching out to me, took its toll.

My prayers in Mom’s last days went something like this: “God, I am exhausted. My heart aches. I can barely stand to be around anybody anymore. I just want to go home. I don’t want her to die before you are ready for her to die, but I am done.” Then God would say every time: “Just listen to my voice, my darling. Only my voice. All day long listen to me and I will help you through this.”

So that is what I tried to do with all my heart every single day until she died. All the way until I watched her take her last breath.

May the Lord grant Linda eternal rest.

Poetic risks and Priestly songs

Giotto Di Bondone’s “St Francis preaching to the birds.”

A bit of a literary menagerie today, as I lacked the time to tidy up. First, some poetry.

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
― Robert Frost

“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”
― W.H. Auden

Another experiment in audio. Like last week’s it was done on the fly. It’s about 13 minutes long. For those who are more visual learners, I also include part of what I say in pdf (here). Listen here for the audio recitation:

Now, some St. Francis.

As today is also the overrun feast of St Francis of Assisi, in his honor I will also quote a few stanzas from his Canticle of Creatures. The first words of the first stanza, “Be praised,” are the first two words that open Pope Francis’ ecological justice encyclical, Laudato Si.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Lastly, a few amateur pix I snapped over the last 3 weeks that were inspired by a new habit, inspired by Laudato Si, of praying St. Francis’ Canticle. It’s heightened my awareness of being a royal priest (1 Pet. 2:9) who, on behalf of the entire natural order (Rom. 8:19-21), is called to give ceaseless praise to the Creator of creation (Dan. 3:57-88). But I can’t do that well if I don’t open my five senses to take the world in so I can lift it up.


Muddy splash on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain


Sunrise on the eastbound of I-10 (disclaimer: taken by the passenger)


Cumulonimbus to the east (I ♥ cumulonimbi)


A neighbor’s snapdragons

Bring Me to Life

Jesus reveals to us God who is one with us in suffering, grief and death… a God who weeps with us. God doesn’t intervene to prevent the tragedies and sufferings of life. If we had a god who simply swooped down as some “deus ex machina” to prevent human tragedy and sinfulness, then religion and faith would simply be reduced to some form of magic or fate, and we would be helpless pawns on the chessboard of some whimsical god. Where is God in the midst of human tragedies? God is there in the midst of it all, weeping. This is our God who stands in deep, human solidarity with us, and through the glory of the Incarnation, embracing fully our human condition. — Pope Francis

Back in 2011 a coworker of mine introduced me to a song by Evanescence called, Bring Me to Life. She said, “I think this song could be about prayer.” I listened to it but never gave it too much more thought until last year when I met a young woman on a retreat who told me that this song was key to her finding faith. Though the band’s intent in writing the song is not totally clear (their music video is a fanciful story of a suicidal woman), the lyrics lend themselves powerfully to a Christian interpretation. In any event, the woman I met told me that she was herself entertaining suicidal thoughts after her life came apart, especially after her long-time boyfriend suddenly left her.

She said she was driving in her car one evening and was desperate to relieve her inner pain, and came as close as she ever had to giving up. She said, “I never really thought about God much. I grew up in an irreligious home. It wasn’t that I was an atheist, I just didn’t see it as relevant. But in my desperation that night my thoughts raced, searching for some higher meaning above the pain and loss. I turned the radio on to distract me. And then this song came on. I had to pull over. As I heard the lyrics, and felt the music’s aching cry for help, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. I’d finally found a voice for my inner torment and, without my even knowing it was happening, I suddenly thought of God. I saw He was the object of all my cries for relief. The song was for me, in that car, about God. For the first time ever, I prayed. I prayed the words of that song.”

I listened to the song later at home and was overcome with emotion thinking of her pain, and with an overwhelming gratitude that the God behind this vast universe is, in His deepest nature, the answer to this song’s desperate cry. I imagined her sitting in the car, drenched unknowlingly in God’s co-mingling tears.

Listen, feel and imagine her prayer:

My Guardian Dear

O God, who in your unfathomable providence are pleased to send your holy Angels to guard us, hear our supplication as we cry to you, that we may always be defended by their protection and rejoice eternally in their company. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. — Amen.

Today is the feast of the Guardian Angels. Be sure to greet your Angel and thank him for his sleepless ministry in your service, and call on him often.

It’s a magnificent truth of faith that each of us, from the moment of conception, is assigned by God an angel to accompany us through our whole life journey. The Catechism #329; 336 gives a nice and succinct summary of our belief in this matter:

From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by the watchful care and intercession [of the angels]. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life, [who] “always beholds the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10).

I’ve always thought of this angelic companion as a sign of God’s particular and provident love for each human being from the moment of conception, and as a sign of the intimate link of earth and heaven that every human being is meant to be. That then made me think of the extraordinary beauty, power and magnificence of every human being’s conception, as God not only sends in response an angel from heaven to earth, but creates at the very moment of conception an immortal, rational soul ex nihilo, “from nothing.” In other words, every conception is a new “in the beginning,” a new Genesis when God says yet again: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26) and proclaims afresh, “Very good.” Regardless of the circumstances of our conception — darkness or light, joy or pain, welcome or unwelcome — God explodes yet again with the supernal joy of creating, out of sheer love, someone who once was not, but now is and will be for ever and ever.

Those thoughts in turn made me think of these two videos of parents welcoming the news of new life into the world. The first is real life, the other is a lovely commercial. The expression on each father’s face is, to me, a sacrament of God’s unseen joy. In fact, when I sent the second video to a woman I know, she said as she watched it God gave her a grace of feeling His joy in her conception, helping her experience herself as a “welcome gift,” having long known that her own parents had conceived her under difficult circumstances. Watch:

St. Thérèse

Happy feast of the Little Flower! I thought for today I would share three favorite quotes from St. Thérèse, with some commentary on each.

“I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbors’ defects–not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.”

There’s a woman I know who’s been married for 15 or so years. She’s terribly realistic about things, the brutally honest sort, and once said to me: “My husband is my path to heaven. I often ask God to help me look on him the way He looks at me. I really want to appreciate the good that’s in him, but then there’s always the other stuff, the stuff that bugs me. So I asked Jesus once to fix my head on this. And once during my hour of Adoration, this thought came to me clear as day, and I just knew it was Jesus because it didn’t agree with me at all: he’s your chance to love better than you would have if he didn’t bug you in the first place. The funny part is once I let myself see things this way, it’s like I suddenly started seeing through the parts of him I don’t like so much into good things in him I’d never noticed before. But let’s be straight, my bigger prayer is totally that God help MY HUSBAND see ME that way!”

“It’s true, I suffer a great deal–but do I suffer well? That is the question. What ineffable joy to carry our cross feebly.”

I knew a man who developed spinal meningitis and lived. Afterward he said to me: “I failed the test of faith, Tom. I complained and doubted and didn’t do a good job being strong for my wife and kids. I was too afraid for myself.” I thought long about that, and wrote him an email after sharing my thoughts on what it means for a Christian to “suffer well.” My focus was on how misconceptions about this topic can leave many people worse off in their suffering because of their faith, and not better. Here’s part of what I wrote: Suffering well doesn’t simply mean being strong, stoic or serene in the face of pain, nor does it require withholding from others any sign of struggle or fear or anger — or even brushes with despair — in the midst of suffering. Read Psalm 88. It’s a dark lament that ends with the words: “My one companion is darkness.” Suffering, especially intense suffering, is unruly and un-ideal. It can’t be romanticized while your in it. And our instinctual psycho-somatic responses are always unpredictable. For a Christian, suffering well in its deepest sense means uniting our hardships to the Cross of Jesus by an act of the will, a raw choice of consent against our inner ragings. “Take it, Lord, it’s yours. Do with it as you wish.” It means offering up to God on unsteady hands the inglorious sacrifice of life’s unpredictability that tears from our grip the power to control. It means turning our pain and desperation into a cry to God: “God, come to my assitance; Lord, come quickly to my aid!” It means inviting the fiat, the “yes” of Jesus in Gethsemane into our fretting trials, remembering that there He suffered an inner storm of agony. It means coming to terms with our helplessness, our need to be cared for by others; and this not simply as an unfortunate concession to regrettable weakness, but as a vocation, a summons to radically receive Christ’s power in a way only to be had in powerlessness (2 Cor. 12). It means never banishing God from the darkness, but seeking for Him there all the more ardently…knowing He descended into hell precisely to fill the night with His Presence.It means learning that perfect faith travels from clean and bright ideas about God into the darkness of deep mystery, which exacts from us not mere assent but unconditional surrender.It means discovering that the joy faith brings into suffering is not simply a naive optimism that “everything’s gonna be alright,” but rather a hope in an imperishable dawn beyond the valley of death. But sometimes — and this is a great mystery — suffering well means no more than consenting to being carried by others when we have nothing left to offer. These know the meaning of Luke 5:18-20.

“O Jesus, I know You command nothing that is impossible. You know how weak and imperfect I am, and You know only too well that I could never love the other nuns as You love them if You Yourself did not love them within me.”

I have no comment to make here. Just praying it with you. May He do this for us. Amen.