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Homily on Prayer - Fr. Dominic David Maichrowicz, OP

The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds.

Two priests were having an argument about prayer, and they decided to settle the argument by writing to Rome and getting an official opinion. So one of them wrote and asked “Is it okay to drink coffee while praying?” and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments wrote back and said, “No. One should not be drinking coffee while praying.” Well, the other priest said, “you didn’t ask right,” and so he wrote to Rome and asked, “Is it okay to pray while drinking coffee?” And the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments wrote back and said, “Yes, of course!”

DSPT - The Pharisee and the Publican, James Tissot, 1886-94. What is prayer? Prayer is a lifting of our heart and mind to God. It is the teaching of our Catholic faith that we mere human beings can be united to God, united to Him who is existence, wisdom, goodness, and love itself. It is a union that does not cause us to dissolve or be absorbed into God or nothingness, it is a union that perfectly preserves who we are. Indeed, it is the union through which we discover who we truly are; the person God made us to be. And the process of this union comes through prayer, through lifting of our heart and mind to God that we might be united to him.  

We have two examples of prayer in the Gospel today; the “prayer” of the pharisee, and the prayer of the tax collector. The pharisee we are told spoke his prayer to himself: it didn’t actually involve any lifting of his heart and mind to God. And we can see why; he didn’t have any need for God – unlike the rest of humanity, he didn’t have any sin – and he was a perfect observer of the law. He does say ‘Thank you’ to God – but he seems rather convinced that he is the one responsible for his own goodness and therefore he has earned the right to despise the tax collector and probably us as well. 

Now, tax collecting in the ancient world was a rather despicable job – far worse than it is today. Tax collectors weren’t really paid for their work; they made money by collecting extra when they collected the tax. Plus they worked for the foreign occupying government which essentially made them traitors to their own people. So we can understand why they were disliked. 

Perhaps then we also understand why the repentant tax collector stood off at a distance, why he would not even raise his eyes to heaven. He knows where he stands. He knows that he has betrayed his own people – that he has been greedy, dishonest, maybe even adulterous. But he knows something else as well – he knows that God has declared himself to be merciful, he knows he cannot change without God’s help, and he knows that the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds. He does not dare to raise his eyes, but he does dare to raise his heart and mind and pray, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' And we are told he went home justified – that is, he went home with his life made right with God.

Given what prayer can do – given the union with God that it can draw us into, the forgiveness and the being made right with God that it can achieve, given the promise that it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds; It is critical that we make sure we set time aside every day for prayer; and during that time the least we can do is set aside our coffee as well. 

Because it’s more than just setting aside time – we need to set ourselves apart for prayer. It is difficult to lift my heart and mind to God when both are in the jumble of the chaos of my lives. And so I need to work to set those things aside and get rid of that external noise and internal noise and confusion as well – to silence the phone, shut off the TV, and shut down the computer; to let go for a moment of the things that need to get done, the places we need to take the kids, the demands at work; to let go of those things and lift our heart and mind to God.  

There are things that can help us set ourselves apart for prayer. Prayer involves the whole person including our body and so even our posture can help – there is a reason prayer is often done on one’s knees and not laid back in a recliner; we can have physical objects to help us focus like a crucifix, an icon or picture, or the beads of the rosary; we can have a set place – a certain chair, or a bench outside, or stopping into the Church; we can begin with set prayers and set meditations to help us focus as well. And yet even with all of that it will be difficult – and if small children are involved you might be lucky to find just a few moments in the day – but even those few moments are essential – to be ourselves before God, to lift up our heart and mind in praise, in asking for forgiveness and for our needs, in praying for others, and in being truly thankful for all he has given us. 

Prayer is so great, so important that we need to set ourselves aside and make time for it. But it is also so great and so important that it can be incorporated into every single good thing we do with our day – prayer can be united to our work, to our service, to taking care of the kids and driving them all over town, to our study, to our time with friends, and even to our suffering: so long as we unite our actions and direct them towards God; so long as we lift our hearts and minds through those actions and make of them an offering to God, we are at prayer: and indeed we can as St. Paul instructs us, learn to pray always; even while drinking our coffee. 

Here in the Mass we find the center of our life of prayer – here as a community we lift our hearts and minds to God: we lift them up to the Lord asking his forgiveness in the penitential rite; we lift them up to receive the Word of God through the readings and the homily; we lift them up in intersession in the prayers of the faithful; and we lift them up in adoration and thanksgiving as we come to this altar to receive Jesus in the most Blessed Sacrament. 

Prayer is not easy but the struggle to pray can be itself a part of prayer; so may we strive this week to deepen and increase our life of prayer.  Let us compete well; let us finish the race; let us keep the faith. And may we know that the Lord will stand by us and give us strength; and that through the lifting of our hearts and minds we too can be made right with him.