16th Sunday (A) 19 July 2020

Dear friends, the clear link between this Sunday’s Gospel and last Sunday’s is the image the Lord Jesus gives us of a sower going out to sow. Last week we heard that only a quarter of the seed scattered found good soil and produced a harvest. This week we learn that weeds can also be sown among the good seeds. Only with time, as the crop becomes ready for harvest, can the wheat be separated from the weeds.

In these parables the seed can be interpreted to mean different things: the words of hope, truth, and life, spoken by Christ; the call to repentance; the invitation to discipleship; the need to hear and live by the commandments; the account we will be asked to give of our lives; the judgement we will all face.

Interwoven with this imagery, and that found in other parables about the kingdom of heaven, is an important underlying theme. Producing a harvest begins small – with a seed or some yeast – and it takes time to grow. Therefore, above all, we need to be patient. In the Christian life, in our lives of faith, perseverance makes all the difference. We need to remember this. I’m reminded of those beautiful words from the Second Letter of St Peter: ‘Think of our Lord’s patience as your opportunity to be saved.’ (2 Pet 3:14)

Patient perseverance is essential to discipleship and indispensable for our prayer. St Paul teaches that when we cannot pray properly, the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, expressing our desires in ways that cannot be put into words. How we need to rely on the Holy Spirit in our prayer!

  • So often, we can want to pray, but not know what to say, or how to voice it;
  • We can feel too weak, too unworthy, or too unlovable to pray;
  • We can struggle to make time for prayer, rushing through formulas while watching the clock;
  • We can find any and every excuse, or sudden urgent good work, to justify moving on from stillness with the Lord.

But enough about my prayer life.

St John of the Cross said that God hears best the silent language of love. How much we need a prayerful spirit of patient loving in response to Christ’s presence. How much we need to persevere in sharing our inner life with Him.

Our attempts at prayer, like at friendship, might not always be successful. We need patient persevering love, that’s all; begun again each new day, in simplicity and faith. Take courage from Cardinal Basil Hume when he writes: ‘Trying to pray is prayer and it is very good prayer.’ [i] 

Cardinal Hume wrote about what he called the ‘Prayer of Incompetence,’ the effort to keep on praying when nothing seems to be happening. ‘We may wonder sometimes’ he says ‘what is the result of our fidelity to prayer. From day to day there is little result that we can see or assess. Only when [we look] back over the years [do we] come to realise that our convictions concerning the things of God are, despite all, clearer than they were. And … finally that the most important result of fidelity to prayer is that, despite everything, we want to go on praying.’ [ii]

It’s a very important question to ask: do we want to pray? Do you want to pray? If the answer is yes, what are we doing seriously about it? And if the answer is no, then why not? What’s going on in our heart?

Our prayer can feel pathetic and rubbish. We can lack discipline, time, attention, effort, or any perceptible results. And yet, despite all of this, and more besides, we can and do really long to pray. Even if just for a few moments, we want to be in the presence of the Lord: present to His love, present to His peace, present to His mercy. If we can do nothing more than quietly pray the Our Father when we wake up in the morning and before we go to sleep at night, then we have begun a rhythm of patient persevering prayer.

The Benedictine Abbot John Chapman left a wonderful legacy of straightforward practical advice about prayer. His two favourite teachings on prayer are easy to remember. First: ‘Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t!’ Second: ‘The less you pray, the worse it goes.’ [iii] Prayer only ever makes things better. So pray as you can, from your heart, with simple words, words of love.

Many of you will remember the wonderful visit of the relics of St Therese of Lisieux to England in 2009. I was in the Diocese of Leeds then and St Therese’s relic arrived on a Saturday lunchtime for a 48 hour stay in Leeds Cathedral. We arranged for police outriders to escort the motorcade into the city. There was an enormous queue of people waiting outside the Cathedral. A great cheer went up as, with lights flashing, the police motorbikes came in sight. In fact, the police were brilliant throughout the visit. We briefed them beforehand about what was taking place. Later on that Saturday, one policeman told me that a woman, seeing the incredible queues, asked him: What’s everyone doing? The policeman said they’re waiting to see Therese of Lisieux. ‘Oh,’ said the woman ‘What sort of songs does she sing?’ I wanted to say the best ones!

As a Doctor of the Church, St Therese might also rightly be titled a ‘Doctor of the Spiritual Life,’ a ‘Doctor of Prayer.’ Her insight into the life of prayer is captured in her autobiography The Story of a Soul:

‘I do not have the courage,’ she said ‘to force myself to search out beautiful prayers in books. There are so many of them it really gives me a headache and each prayer is more beautiful than the others. I cannot recite them all and not knowing which to choose, I do like children who do not know how to read. I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me.’

St Therese continues: ‘For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart; it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.’ [iv]

Dear friends, ‘Think of our Lord’s patience as your opportunity to be saved.’ Simple, patient, persevering prayer. This is what it means to be a friend of the Lord Jesus.

[i] Basil Hume, To Be a Pilgrim (London: St Pauls/SPCK, 1984): 126.

[ii] Basil Hume, Searching for God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977): 123.

[iii] John Chapman, Spiritual Letters (London: Continuum, 1935; 2003): 24.

[iv] St Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, edited by John Clarke (Washington: ICS Publications, 1996, 3rd ed): 242.