Sunday, February 19, 2017

Prayer and Cheap Talk

The other day after mass, I had a fascinating conversation with two aspiring priests.  Neal, who went to Ireland on Friday to interview for seminary, was lamenting the fact that few believe in the power of prayer today.  Jeff, who has been discerning the monastic life, agreed and said that whenever he offers to pray for people they kind of give him a look, as if to say, "Umm, thanks." or "Yeah, whatever."  I reflected on why that might be.  On the one hand, many people are skeptical of prayer because they lack a truly supernatural outlook, but it is also true that offers of prayer are often "cheap talk".   They can be empty gestures, a part of the well-meaning dynamics of conversation or good will gestures on Facebook.  But are the offers backed up with something more than a quick petition or remembrance?  God is probably still waiting to receive many of the prayers that have been promised on Facebook...

When I taught World Politics, we used to distinguish between "cheap talk" and "costly signals" in the relations between states and other international actors (like OPEC, the United Nations etc) .  Political and economic players engage in "cheap talk" every day in order to pursue their interests, but it doesn't tell you much about where they really stand because they're not incurring much of a cost in whatever they are doing.  But if they do something costly, then they've signaled who they really are and what they really believe.  Jesus refers to a similar dynamic in the parable of the "Widow's mite" (Luke 21: 1-4).  Jesus watches the rich offer their gifts at temple but he is unimpressed because their gift is "cheap talk", it flows from their abundance and doesn't disrupt their lives in any way.  By contrast, the poor widow gives two small coins that she will miss in her poverty, but in doing so she has sent a "costly signal" about where her heart is. Jesus is impressed and gratified, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them."  She alone was justified.

In a similar way, our lives are always signaling to God where our heart is.  Are we revealing ourselves to be cold, lukewarm or full of divine love?  We want our prayers to be costly, because by the sacrifice we signal to God that we believe He is worth it, that we don't take Him and his offer of salvation for granted.

Some Costly Forms Of Prayer

There are many ways of engaging in costly prayer, and different practices suit different people.  Here are some ideas: praying the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours each day, a daily rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet, fifty-four day novenas, praying on your knees on the hard floor, praying cruciform standing or face down on the bare floor, late night vigils or "keeping the watch" (perhaps at an adoration chapel).  We should always unite our prayers with whatever sufferings God has given us, and gently accept those sufferings.  We should also bear the burdens of others in our hearts, truly "compassionating" with them.  I've often done this while doing the street ministry and it is very heart-rending.  In particular, I recall Becky, a young Canadian woman who went from university life to a series of bad boyfriends and then to addiction and prostitution in a matter of five years.  The saints allowed themselves to be wounded by compassionating with the fallen of their own time, out of love for God and poor sinners.  Another good practice is to consistently pray throughout the day, offering thanks, supplications for all those we meet, and returning to God in mental prayer.  It is nothing other than inviting Jesus to walk alongside of us as we go, but it does take dedication. Jeff, who I mentioned above, has another good practice.  He prays for two hours each morning, usually before the tabernacle at St. Stephens.  Now that's dedication!  Jesus knows where his love is.  Lately Chris and I have been praying rosaries and chaplets as we do long loops in our tunics around a local Planned Parenthood (the last one here that still performs surgical abortions).  It is usually after dark, cold and wet and so there is some sacrifice involved.  Chris hopes that it will crumble like the Walls of Jericho, but I'll settle for just one woman embracing the child that is within her.  She too would be wounded by love one day, the love for her child.  May it be so.

St. Teresa of Avila wounded by love