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On Humble and Persistent Prayer

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The Canaanite Woman's Continued Prayer to Jesus

The story of the Canaanite woman — which we will be reading for the 20th Sunday (Year A) is a story about humble and persevering prayer. At least that is the way Bede the Venerable understands it. In this selection from one of his homilies, Bede takes the Canaanite woman as a type of those whose conscience is stained by sin. These should submit themselves with humility, as the Canaanite woman did, and not cease from insistent prayer. Along this line, Cyprian’s teaching on prayer — taken from his catechism on the Our Father — offers insights on “attentive” prayer. Interesting in this piece is the way he explains “Sursum corda”, the beginning of the preface to the eucharistic prayer. Also interesting is the way he uses an observable fact — people who pray with eyes closed and with moving lips — as an illustration for vigilant prayer.

Finally, from Augustine of Hippo, we take a selection from his homily on the words “Whatever you ask for in my name, I will do it (John 14:13)”. He explains how we should pray in Jesus’ name and why we should not cease praying even when he does not seem to grant what we ask for.

All of these selections throw light on the idea of persevering prayer exemplified in the example of the Canaanite woman who did not cease supplicating Jesus even when he had rejected her repeatedly.

Persevering Prayer and Our Purification

In the reading from the holy gospel, dear brothers, we hear about the great faith, patience, constancy and humility of a woman. The devotion of her heart is all the more worthy of admiration inasmuch as, although she was a pagan — in fact, she was completely separated from the teachings of the divine words — yet, she was not deprived of those virtues which are preached by these. Her faith, in fact, was truly perfect … She possesses the virtue of patience in a measure that was not scarce, she who, while not responding to the first request of the Lord, did not cease to pray to him, but with more persistence, continues to implore the aid of his compassion.

Woman, great is your faith; may it be done as you desire it” (Mt. 15:28). Truly, she had great faith, she who, although not knowing the ancient miracles, precepts or promises of the prophets, nor those recent from the Lord himself, beyond the fact that many times she was treated by him with indifference, she perseveres in prayer; and she does not cease from asking with supplications the one whom she has known to be a great Savior. And it is because of this that her request obtained such a great effect; from the moment when the Lord said “may it be done to you as you desire”, her daughter was healed… If one of us has a conscience stained by avarice, by passions, by vainglory, by disdain, by anger or envy and all the other vices, it would be as if one had a daughter that is maltreated by a demon, for which reason one turns to the Lord with supplications … Submitting oneself with the proper humility, let no one think oneself worthy of belonging to the sheepfold of Israel, that is, with pure souls, but rather, that they should undergo a struggle; let one think oneself unworthy of any heavenly gifts. And yet one should not cease through desperation of becoming diligent in insistent prayer, but with a confident soul, let one commend oneself to the bounty of the Highest Giver: because he can turn a thief into a witness, a persecutor to an apostle, a publican to an evangelist, stones into sons of Abram … He himself can transform a shameful human being like a dog into a sheep of the flock of Israel.

St Bede the Venerable, Homily 1, 19

Prayer From The Heart

Therefore, dearest, when we begin to pray, we ought to be vigilant and completely intent in whole-hearted prayer. Let all carnal and mundane thoughts be far from us so that the heart concentrates on nothing except on prayer.

This is the reason why the bishop, with the preface (of the first eucharistic prayer) prepares the mind of the faithful saying: “Lift up your hearts”, to which the people respond: “We’ve lifted them up to the Lord.” One is thereby exhorted not to think of anything but the Lord.

Close your heart to the Enemy and open it only to God; do not allow the enemy to penetrate within us during the time of prayer. He in fact insinuates himself with subtlety so as to turn our prayers away from God, such that we have one thing in our hearts but another in our lips, when one ought to pray to the Lord with sincere application, not with the sound of voice but with the soul and the mind…

How do you expect to be heard by God when you don’t listen to yourself? And how could you wish that the Lord remember what you ask in prayer when you yourself do not remember what you are asking for? This means not really that you should beware of the Enemy; rather this means being aware of the God you pray to. To offend His majesty with your negligence to your prayer is none other than watch with the eyes and sleep with the heart. On the contrary, the Christian should while the eyes are closed, ought to watch with the heart, just as in the Song of Songs, it is written of her who speaks as a type of the Church: “I sleep but my heart watches” (Canticles 5:2). For this reason, the Apostle is careful and wise to remind us: “Be assiduous in prayer and be vigilant” (Col. 4:2): he is teaching us and shows us that only they whom God sees watchful in prayer can obtain from God what they ask for.

Ciprian of Carthage, On the Lord’s Prayer 31

Praying In The Name of Jesus

Awaken your attention, faithful soul, and listen with discernment to what he says in his promise: “In my name” — he did not say — “All that you ask for in any way” but “All that you ask for in my name that I will do” (John 14:13). And He who has promised us such a great gift, what is His Name? Jesus Christ. “Christ” means “king”, Jesus means “Savior”. It is not any king who would save us, but the Savior King; and so whatever we ask that is contrary to our salvation, we don’t ask it from the Savior. And yet, he does not cease from being our Savior, not only when he listens to what we ask, but also when he does not listen to our prayer. Since he does not grant what we ask for that can harm our chance of being saved, he shows by this that he is our Saviior. The doctor knows when what a patient asks for would be to his health or for his disadvantage, and so if he does not satisfy the wishes of him who asks for something that damages, he does so in order to protect his health. When therefore we would like that the Lord grant our prayers, we ask from him not in any way, but in his name, that is, in the name of the Savior. And we should not ask for what is damaging to our salvation: if he grants such a prayer, He wouldn’t be behaving as a Savior, which He is. He who deigns to be a Savior for the faithful is also the Judge who condemns the impious.

Who therefore believes in Him, whatever he should ask in His name — that is, in the name by which He is known by those who believe iin Him — will be granted, because when he does so, he acts as Savior. But if instead, whoever believes in Him, asks out of ignorance for something that is damaging to his salvation, does not ask in the name of the Savior. The Lord wouldn’t be his Savior if he would grant that which would not be beneficial to his eternal salvation. This is why He is not only the Savior but also the Teacher. In order to grant all that we ask for, he teachers us what we should ask for in the same prayer which he has given us. He teaches us, not to ask in the name of the Teacher, that which is contrary to the principles of his teachings.

However, even if we ask in His name, in the name of the Savior and according to his teachings, sometimes he does not grant our prayers to us at the moment we pray to him. It is true that our prayer ends when it is granted. For example, we ask that the God’s kingdom come: He does not grant it to us at the moment when we ask for it because we cannot reign with him immediately in eternity. He defers the realization of what we ask for, but he does not deny it. We should not stop from praying therefore; let us behave like those who sow seeds: the time will come for the harvest.

Augustine, In Johannem, 73, 3-4

Originally posted 2008-08-02 17:43:14. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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