The Pursuit of Prayer

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A.Stylised image of kneeling person at prayer.

Today’s Gospel separates the HAVES from the HAVE-NOTs.

Some of us here present today have experienced a deep inner sense of God-the-Father’s loving presence.

Some of us here present today have experienced Jesus being so close to us, that we would readily agree from our own experience that He is in us and we are in him.

Some of us here present today have experienced God’s Spirit of Truth dwelling within us, making sense of what we believe.

If we HAVE experienced any of these things, we will struggle to put the experience into words. We know something happened, but what I have just said might feel like a pale echo of this kind of deep experience.

If we HAVEN’T experienced any of these things, everything I’ve just said might sound a bit airy-fairy. But don’t panic! Jesus was pointing to a day in the future when his hearers would experience these things. For the Apostles, that day was the first Christian Pentecost. For the Samaritans who heard the Gospel from Philip, it happened on the day when the apostles Peter and John blessed them. For those of us who haven’t yet experienced it, we still can – on the day when God grants us that gift.

The funny thing is, if we HAVE experienced such things, we probably don’t talk about it. We might have a thought in the back of our minds that there is such a thing as “spiritual pride”. We shouldn’t make ourselves out to be “holier than other people”. If we have sensed God being close to us in prayer, we daren’t say so! What would people think of us?

Relax! Any deep experience we have in prayer is not a reward for our good behaviour, but a gift from God. It is given because God loves us, not because we deserve it. When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at shrines like Lourdes and Fatima, Beauraing and Banneux, it was not because the children there were especially good, but because they had the simplicity to pass on her messages honestly.

When I was a student in seminary, we took part in many kinds of discussion groups. Every weekday morning we had classes where we discussed theology and philosophy. Once a week we had “human development” groups where we were encouraged to share our innermost thoughts to help our psychological development – on pain of strictest confidence. We also met in groups to practice giving sermons and to review the pastoral placements we had been on. The one thing we didn’t have a group for, was talking about what was going on in our personal prayer. What a strange omission for men-of-God in training!

Then one of my classmates arranged to run a short, voluntary course, using video material called Knowing God Better – some of you might have seen it locally. The content was very basic stuff for men doing degree-level theology. Yet the course had a wonderful effect! For the first, and only, time in my seminary experience, men from different year groups started sharing together about their own experience of God’s presence. It helped me to understand better how God speaks to different people in different times and at different ways.

I know an American woman called Sara who became a Catholic a few years ago. She spent a year following the RCIA programme in the parish, and a few weeks into the course, she asked the catechists about what they experienced when they prayed. Sara didn’t get much of an answer, so she assumed the catechists were just being modest. A few weeks later, she tried again, but made no progress. By the end of the course she had made a startling realisation – what she was already experiencing in her own prayer time was a much deeper experience than anything tasted by those who were trying to train her in the art of being a Catholic!

When we are beginners in trying to pray, God offers us many “spiritual sweeties”. We are likely to enjoy the experience of praying. But as we become more mature, we will often find that prayer gets harder. God has taken the sweetie-jar away and is now feeding us with our spiritual “five-a-day” – better for us, but less enjoyable. Eventually, in the darkness and dryness, we might get a glimpse of this wonderful nearness-of-God which today’s Gospel points towards. Some people break through to an even deeper kind of prayer, contemplation, where they can easily “spend time with God”. But may people, even saints, will live out the later years of their life in darkness and dryness with only the occasional consoling glimpse of God’s presence. After Blessed Teresa of Calcutta died, and her diaries were read, many people were shocked to learn how for the second half of her life, she experienced the absence of God. Yet this isn’t unusual as part of spiritual growth.

In two weeks’ time it will be Pentecost. There is a longstanding tradition of preparing for Pentecost by keeping a novena – nine days of prayer asking for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pope Leo XIII and St John Paul II have affirmed this tradition. There are different kinds of novenas. Some of them pray for the church at large, or use traditional language to pray for the gifts of the Spirit. Today I would like to share a very simple novena which uses everyday language, and which you can use to ask God to draw close to you.

I cannot make any promises about what exactly God will do, or when God will do it. When the Apostle Peter preached to a Roman soldier called Cornelius, the Holy Spirit came into the hearts of everyone in the house even while Peter was still preaching. When Philip the Deacon preached to the Samaritans, their hearts felt hungry for more but the Holy Spirit did not come until Peter and John arrived and blessed them.  Medieval coin with design of dove descending and tongues of fire.It is God who decides when he will change us from being HAVE-NOTS to being HAVES. But I know that Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospel that if we human beings know how to give good things to our children, how much more will God send His Holy Spirit to those who ask!