Over the summer, at a marvelous summer camp, a wise old grandfather was telling me of his experience
praying for his descendents. He said he keeps finding himself tempted to think, if I just pray x many rosaries, maybe I can get the upper hand, and force God to do what I want him to do – or at least earn it from him.
But to the contrary, we pray not to get power over God, but precisely because we know that’s not how it works. We pray because we know all good things come from his hands, and all we have to do is ask.
There’s a similar lesson in many of our prayers. The Memorare focuses, of course, on Mary’s faithfulness in responding to our prayers. But this faithfulness is put in focus by the line, “sinful and sorrowful.” See, the point is that in praying I renounce my merits. I don’t say, “hey, I deserve this.” I say, in your mercy, hear and answer. The same thing happens in all the Psalms that say, “for thy name’s sake, O Lord.” Not because I am good, but because you are.
(That, of course, is the point of a novena – or even the defined length of the liturgy of the hours, and the intercessory power of the Mass. Not that I do so much that God has to listen, but that I say my prayers and then stop, trusting not in my goodness, but in his. That’s why we pray to the saints, too – not my goodness, but his, in them who are close to him and full of him. I don’t think myself worthy to storm into the throne room on my own.)
Our Sunday readings all talk about the power of prayer, and the power of our weakness in prayer.
The first reading, from Sirach, is about God’s preferential option for the poor – sort of. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds . . . and the Lord will not delay.” Pretty effective!
But there’s a spin. The reading begins not by saying the poor are God’s favorites, but by saying, “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” He is “not unduly partial toward the weak – yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”
It isn’t that they win because they are poor. It’s that they win because they trust in his goodness, not theirs.
So too in our reading from Second Timothy, one of the “prison epistles,” written from Paul’s captivity.
“Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation” – that is, like one of the “drink offerings” of the Temple, where the wine was a sacrificial victim, poured out on the altar. Pretty good! Paul himself is the sacrifice! “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.” He’s got his act together, huh?
Then (the reading skips several verses), he talks about his trial. “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.” It starts out sounding like he’s the hero, he alone is the deserving one.
“But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” Nope. The whole point is that he boasts of his weakness. I didn’t stand a chance. I couldn’t do it. He did it. His goodness, not mine. So Paul talks about being “rescued from the lion’s mouth” – like Daniel, who is not the one who shut up the lion’s mouth. “The Lord will rescue me . . . . To him” – not me – “be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
That’s the meaning of being a libation. Not that I was so strong that I made myself a sacrificial victim – but that I was so weak that the only thing I could do was be broken down, and trust in the goodness and the strength of God. It is good to be weak, for then we know that he, he alone, is strong.
And so the Gospel is obvious. We pray not like the Pharisees, “convinced of their own righteousness,” who say, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.” Our prayer is not, “I fast twice a week,” look at me!
No, our prayer is like the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
How do you find yourself trying to coerce God, instead of depend on his mercy? How could your prayer be more focused on his goodness, and less on yours?