prayers that terrify

A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”

It’s a striking scene.  At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry- this is, after all, just the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel – a leper comes to ask for healing.

Or does he?  He desires healing, of course, but how does he beg?  Rather than asking, he kneels in front of Jesus and states a fact. He states the truth.  “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  What faith he has – in a man he seemingly barely knows.

The story continues: Moved with pity, He stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” (Mark 1:40-41)

What if Jesus didn’t will it? I’ve talked here before about the mystery of suffering – Jesus doesn’t always alleviate suffering, even though we know it’s certainly in His power to do so.

And yet, that prayer of the leper was complete openess to Jesus’ divine Will.  Here in the Gospel, the leper shows complete surrender to whatever Jesus chooses to do.  If you will it….

How often are my prayers so open?  I generally pray for a particular intention and then throw in a “if it’s Your will…” at the end, as a sort of clause that makes me feel like I’ve done my job “being open” and now He can grant my request.

You know how I can tell when I’m actually being open?  When there’s a realization in my prayer that I could very well be praying for the opposite of what I desire.  This has happened a few times, and one of them was when I was applying to graduate school a few years ago.  I was applying to get another Masters in Theology in hopes of continuing on the Ph.D. track.  It was a difficult program that accepted very few of their hundreds of applicants. But I had a lot in my favor, and I thought I had a pretty good chance of getting accepted.  Since it was such a prestigious program, I knew that if I was accepted, there would be very little chance that I would turn it down.

So my prayer went something like this.  I want this.  I think it’s Your Will.  Let me get accepted to this program. But… if it’s not Your Will… let me get rejected.  Your will be done…

I knew I was possibly praying for the complete opposite of what I wanted.  And that was really hard.  I would pray and pray and pray … fully knowing that I could be putting all this energy and piety into something I didn’t want.  Or I didn’t think I wanted.

I wrote to a friend during that time of prayer, the weeks leading up to my application deadline, because he too was facing a big decision and possible-change-of-life that same day.

I know this is what I want, although I doubt it daily.  I’m pretty sure it’s what God wants, although I fear it isn’t sometimes.  As I pray this novena, it’s hard for me to accept that if I’m really praying for His will, I might be praying to NOT get into grad school.  And that’s a scary thought.

And same with my prayers for you.  I’m praying that God’s Will be done and that you have peace during the next few weeks and months.  It’s hard for me to pray for that, though, knowing that I might be praying that you don’t hear the answer you want to hear on Dec 14. What if God’s answer is not our answer?  It’s scary, but comforting at the same time.

We’re in a similar boat.  What lies ahead after Dec 14?   If things don’t go “well,” will we blame ourselves and feel like failures?  Or will we see that perhaps God has radically different plans for us?  It’s hard to see His hand in rejection, which is why I fear it so much.  Am I not smart enough?  don’t have a good enough resume?  wrote a horrible statement of intent?  Or does He just have a better plan?

Now, four years later, I can rest in the peace of knowing His will was done.  I didn’t get into grad school (but my dear friend did get his position).  Did I feel rejected?  Absolutely.  Were there tears shed?  Of course. But did I know that God’s Will was being done?  Yep.  He had a better plan.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say that praying for His will was easy.  Prayers of complete openness are difficult. And heart-wrenching.  I didn’t feel very warm and fuzzy inside.  But trust and surrender often lack warm fuzziness.

It wasn’t easy to pray for His will, not knowing what that will really was.  It was rather terrifying.  But perhaps I need my prayers to terrify me more often.

When knowledge isn’t good enough

One of my favorite works by Pope Benedict is his “trilogy” about Jesus of Nazareth, and my favorite of the three works- at least this week- is the last, on the Infancy Narratives.  Before Christmas Midnight Mass, I reread the chapter on the magi, and I decided it was my favorite chapter. (This week.)

One part always strikes me.  In speaking about the Magi stopping in Jerusalem, receiving direction from the chief priests and scholars, he points out,

“The answer given by the chief priests and scribes to the wise men’s question has a throughly practical geographical content, which helps the Magi on their way. Yet it is not only a geographical, but also a theological interpretation of the place and event. That Herod would draw the obvious conclusion is understandable. Yet it is remarkable that his Scripture experts do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result. Does this, perhaps, furnish with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?”

The Wise Men had knowledge, which allowed them to know what the star meant, which allowed them to embark on their journey in the first place. Without their hunger and desire for knowledge, the star would have remained an astrological phenomenon to be witnessed, not a sign to be sought.

But knowledge wasn’t their end goal.  Encounter was.  It wasn’t enough to know the King had been born.  They had to meet Him.

Is it the same with us?  It’s a good examination of conscience for me, especially in my work as director of adult formation and as a Catholic speaker.  I want everyone to know the Truth. I want them to know the Catechism.  I want to share what the Church teaches.  I want them to dive into the Scriptures and be hungry to know more.

But is my goal to give them knowledge… or for that knowledge to ultimately lead to encounter?  If it all remains on the level of knowledge, it will soon cease to even matter to my audience.  Why do I need to know these random bits of facts and teachings? Why does it matter in my life?

It must go further – that knowledge must create in us a hunger to not just know more, but to pursue Him, to encounter Him … to worship Him.

“…and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.

And then we give Him everything. And He changes our life.

“Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

Knowledge… encounter… worship… surrender. That is the formula for an abundant life.

The chief priests and scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures had knowledge, but remained busy in their theological exercises and disputes.  The Magi’s knowledge spurred them to encounter Him. And that made all the difference.