I cannot count the number of times I have heard comments about prayer that went something like this, “I have tried praying but it does not work,” “I prayed and nothing happened” or “I stopped praying because it did not make any difference.” Such statements reduce prayer to petitions addressed to God. But prayer involves something much greater than petitions to God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes prayer as “the raising of one’s heart and mind to God or the requesting of good things from God.” (CCC#2559) Prayer must first and foremost be the lifting of heart and mind to God above and beyond the petition for our needs because “If our hearts are far from God, the words of our prayers are in vain.” (CCC#2562) With this in mind, prayer is primarily about a loving relationship with God: “In the New Covenant, prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond all measure, with His Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.” (CCC#2565) By lifting up our hearts and minds to God in prayer, we know that we are always in a loving relationship with a good and loving God and this leaves us with a renewed hope, deeper peace and greater inner strength to face life even if our prayers are not answered the way we want.
In yesterday’s Gospel, Martha is doing much serving all alone then she becomes tired and irritable. She feels abandoned by Jesus and by her sister Mary and she is upset with both of them. She even questioned Jesus’ sensitivity to her worries: “Do you not care?” She complains to Jesus and even seems to accuse her sister Mary of being lazy and uncaring. Though she is serving the Lord Jesus, she has forgotten the one thing that matters most – her loving relationship with God. She loses sight of this one thing because she is not raising her mind and heart to God first to grasp His will for her at the moment. Her anxious and worried service only leaves her complaining, without peace of heart or inner strength.
Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part because she chose to lift up her mind and heart to God first, listening to Jesus’ words to grasp His will for her first without asking for anything. She places her relationship with Him first in her posture of listening to His words first. She is at peace because she knows that she is a loving relationship with God. She is not even bothered by her sister Martha’s rebuke.
Before we condemn Martha as one who does not pray, notice that she did make a petition to Jesus though in a complaining voice. Jesus does not grant Martha’s prayers just as He does not always grant all our requests. But He calls her to seek the one necessary thing – to lift up her heart and mind to God in prayer first and know His will for her before saying or doing anything. If she would only listen to Him first prayerfully, she will find that God never abandons her and that she does not need to be anxious and worried about her service. Without lifting up our minds and hearts to God in all things, we will never grasp the depth of His love for us, we will miss out on His own peace, our hope will dwindle, we will lack inner strength to persevere and we too will complain endlessly, become anxious and worried.
The Second Reading shows St. Paul sharing with the Colossians his sufferings as he preaches the Gospel of Jesus. Notice that he is not worried, anxious or troubled. He confidently exclaims, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” St. Paul is not completely focused on his trials and difficulties in ministry. Most likely he must have petitioned the Lord to take this suffering away. But he proves to be a man of true prayer who knows how to lift his heart and mind to God even in his sufferings. It is only by this lifting up of heart and mind to God that he can rejoice and know with certainty that “Christ in him is hope for glory.” Such heroic inner strength, hope and peace comes only from one who sees prayer as more than asking for things but a lifting up of heart and mind to God to grasp His deep abiding love.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are always worried, anxious, and troubled in this life because we are not deeply aware that we are constantly in a loving relationship with God. The prayer that leads us into this relationship with God in this life is what Jesus called the better part because by it we grasp His loving will for us and our hope, peace and strength is renewed even if our needs are not granted. But if our prayer remains only an endless litany of needs and wants without any attention to His will for us at the moment of need, we will be condemned to a life of constant worries and anxiety.
A friend of mine recently told me that God always answers our prayers but he does so in three different ways. He either responds to our requests with “Yes,” “Later, not now,” or “You must be kidding me.” Sometimes the “Yes” responses may be too infrequent. But if we continuously listen to His voice by raising our minds and heart to Him, we shall never lose confidence in His love for us when we receive the “Later” or “You must be kidding me” responses and we will persevere in serving Him even if no one notices or appreciates our efforts.
One powerful way to lift up our hearts and mind to God in silent prayer is by praying in Jesus’ Eucharistic presence with the bible or with the Catechism of the Catholic Church or with any spiritual writings. Jesus speaks His life-giving words to us in such times of prayer through the words that we read and reflect upon. By listening and speaking to Him in response from our hearts about what we have read, we get used to hearing His voice and it becomes easier to recognize His voice in daily life in the midst of all the noise and false ideas of our world today. By adoring the Eucharist with faith and love, we Catholics do not need to do some imaginary gymnastics trying to imagine Jesus close to us. In the Eucharist, Jesus is then as close to us as He was with Martha and Mary and He wants us to choose the better part always.
Let us turn to Mother Mary to teach us how to lift our hearts and minds to God. One depiction of the Annunciation scene has Mary gazing at the words of God in the scriptures that she held in her knees even as the Angel Gabriel speaks to her of the coming of the Eternal Word into her womb. It appears that she never took her heart and mind away from God. She always listened to His words in prayer and in daily life. She is the one who always believed in those words and always acted on them no matter what it costs her. Inner peace, hope and strength of God reigned in her pure and humble soul because she always grasped His will for her in good and bad times. There is no complaining or anxiety in this heart!
May the Blessed Virgin Mary help us her children to do likewise and raise our hearts and minds to God always so that we too be people of inner strength, peace and hope, serving God in the way that He desires whether our prayers are answered or not. This, my brothers and sisters, is indeed the better part that we must choose and hold on to!
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