The sermon podcast is available here.
The entire service is available on YouTube.
The story is told of a monastery in Portugal, perched high on a 3,000 foot cliff and accessible only by a terrifying ride in a swaying basket. The basket is pulled with a single rope by several strong men, perspiring under the strain of the fully loaded basket. One American tourist who visited the site got nervous halfway up the cliff when he noticed that the rope was old and frayed. Hoping to relieve his fear he asked, “How often do you change the rope?” The monk in charge replied, “Whenever it breaks.”
Another story tells of two monks, Brother Matthew and Brother James, who encountered each other while out for a walk. They look at each other and without saying a word, go in separate directions. Later that day, Brother Matthew goes to the Abbot of the monastery and complains. Seems he didn’t appreciate all the gossip that Brother James had shared.
Monasteries are interesting places and I’m speaking from my brief experience of them. Most of you probably know that this past week I spent some time in a monastery in the eastern part of the state. I was scheduled for eight days, but only lasted six. For me, in an experience like that, you reach a point where you realize there is nothing more to be gained, so you can continue for the sake of continuing, or you can call it a day and sleep in your own bed. I chose the latter, because, as I noted in one of the blog posts I put up, I’m spoiled.
For the full days that I was there, I would get up at 4:00 a.m. and be in chapel before 5:00 a.m., and for the next three hours, we would pray. Most of the praying consisted of reading the Psalms, which I truly love, but this was also about the only part of the service I was able to follow, because it was all in Latin. (The English was there, right alongside the Latin, but there were no cues as to where you were if you got lost.) For me, if I was at the wrong place to start with or I got lost along the way, the rest of the service was a wash. And it would seem that not even the brothers were able to get it right all the time, because for every mistake they made, they had to do penance: step forward, kneel on both knees, and bow for every mistake. If I had been up there with them, I would have gotten on my knees at the beginning of the service and not bothered standing back up again. The entire process was amazing to watch and even more so to listen to. The upside was that if you got that time of prayer wrong, there were going to be six more services (two to three more hours) during the day where you could try and get it right. In six days, there was only one service that I made it all the way through without losing where we were. Perhaps, if you know what you are doing, it would be easier, but it was exhausting work, and all I really wanted to do was pray.
That’s not to say that prayer isn’t work, but when I’m so focused on how to pray, I don’t actually end up praying. So, between services, when it wasn’t a meal time, I would either take a nap, read, or go sit in the darkened chapel and pray as I knew how. It was then that I could draw near to God and my prayer was not work, but joy. I believe this is true for many.
I know a fella who began his deepest prayers by first seeking the Blessed Virgin Mary. He would look for her along an old country road and they would go for walks together. She would then lead him to Jesus. But one day, when he found her along the way, she was not wanting to walk… she wanted to dance. She took both his hands in hers and like children, they danced in great skipping circles. They smiled, then they began to laugh. Jesus joined them. Mary was on his right and the fella was on his left. All three holding hands in a circle. They danced, but after awhile, Mary left the two alone and the fella and Jesus sat in the long green grass. When he looked in Jesus’ eyes, the fella confessed his sins and spoke the things of his heart.
This past week, I also had the opportunity to sit with Jesus in the green pasture during the cool of the day, and the words of David came to my mind:
“Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
That encounter came about, not because of the hours of prayer that I spent praying with the monks, or because I spoke in Latin (which I didn’t), or because I’m all that holy (which I’m not.) That encounter came about because Mary led me to my Savior who seemed to have nothing else to do but sit and talk with me.
Do not think that I am criticizing the prayers of the monks or the way they go about it. I’m not. They are quite remarkable in the practice of their faith, but not all are called to that kind of life. But I’m also in agreement with St. Teresa of Avila: “Much more is accomplished by a single word of the Our Father said, now and then, from our heart, than by the whole prayer repeated many times in haste and without attention.” Our prayer is heard, not because of its length, language, or number of times repeated. Our prayer is heard—no matter how it expressed—when it is spoken from the heart.
There is a great deal taking place in our Gospel reading and much that needs ‘unpacking’ with the incident involving the Canaanite woman, but it is also demonstrates this this topic of prayer.
“A Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”
Regardless, of how it may have appeared to the people then or us today, this woman was praying. “Have mercy on me, Lord… Lord, help me.” For the sake of the crowd, mimicking their prejudices, Jesus at first refused her, knowing all along that he would answer her, but why did he answer? She was of the wrong creed, not even Jewish. She was a woman speaking to a man. She was not in a synagogue, but out on the street, making a scene out of it all. She did not use fancy words, but spoke her need simply and concisely. All this against her, yet the Lord heard her cry and answered her. Why? Because her prayer was from the heart. “Have mercy on me, Lord… Lord, help me.” She cried out to the Lord and he heard her.
I would not change one thing about the way the brothers at the monastery pray and I would not change one thing about how we pray when we come here to worship. I love our traditions, rituals, prayers… all of it. As I’ve said to you before, I am never nearer to God than when I am able to stand up there behind the altar and pray the Mass. It is an incredible feeling. I was jealous of Fr. Jim last week, because he was in my church doing what I so love to do, but… in the prayers of our heart, we can set aside all the prayer books, vestments, liturgical prayers, and simply say, “Have mercy on me, Lord… Lord, help me.” And we can know that our prayers are heard, not necessarily answered according to our will, but during those times, Jesus sits with us in the green grass during the cool of the day and listens… he hears the cries of our hearts.
I knew it before I took my trip this past week, but it was a good reminder: you don’t have to be a monk or run off to a monastery in oder to pray, to be heard by God. You only need open your heart to him. Again, St. Teresa of Avila: “We need no wings to go in search of Him, but have only to look upon Him present within us.” Regardless of location, language, form, whatever, speak to God from your heart and you will be praying and he… he will hear.
Let us Pray (St. Teresa of Avila):
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.