Aug 11, 2014

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Why does Jesus go into the desert and up a mountain to pray alone? The reading about Elijah helps to give us an answer. Elijah had just finished proving that Baal was a false God. Then he had their false religion destroyed along with the false priests and false prophets. The Queen at the time, Jezabel, threatened to kill Elijah. So Elijah, fearing for his life, escaped to the desert. In the desert God sends an Angel to feed him with bread for 40 days and 40 nights. The Angel leads Elijah to the mountain of God. On the mountain Elijah witnesses a fierce wind, an earthquake and fire. God is not in any of these things. Then there was a tiny whispering sound, the whisper of gentle air. And there when Elijah was alone, God revealed himself in the quiet whisper of wind.

In our Gospel last Sunday, Jesus heard about the murder of John the Baptist and withdrew to a deserted place by himself. The crowds followed him and he was moved with compassion when he saw them. He healed the sick and then fed them with bread. When he had taken care of these things, he sent his disciples away and also dismissed the crowds. Afterwards, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.

Elijah went out into the desert because he was frightened. Jesus goes out into the desert, too. He might have been frightened or sad at the death of his cousin. Or tired from preaching and healing. Or disappointed at being rejected by his own town. He knows that he needs solitude and prayer. God sends an angel to feed Elijah with bread. Jesus is the one who feeds the crowd. An angel leads Elijah to the mountain. Jesus needs no one else to know where he needs to go. Elijah has to be instructed by experience where God may be found. Jesus already knows.

Jesus is true God and true man. As God, he has no need to pray, but as man, he has every need to pray. Did Jesus pray with his disciples? Of course! Did he pray with the crowd? Absolutely! So why does Jesus go into the desert and up a mountain, alone, to pray? The heart needs prayer, both the public and communal type, as well as the private and intimate experience. God made us to take delight in praising him and our hearts remain restless until they rest in him. We need quiet and solitude to answer this need of our hearts. This can be a difficult thing for us to grasp. We are bad at being alone and really bad at being quiet. We fill our lives with the frenzy of almost constant sounds and entertainment: television, movies, radio, internet. We are almost constantly doing, doing, doing. When do we rest from all this? When we drop exhausted into our nightly sleep. I think that we fear being alone. I think we are afraid of being bored. We take our solitude and fill it with the things that numb our loneliness and boredom: Facebook, video games, and other less savory things. Yet have we ever been more lonely? Have these things ever been the source of a rich and meaningful life? None of these things can actually answer to our basic human needs. They accentuate and perpetuate our problems. At the very least, they do not resolve them.

In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives: work, raising children, rushing around, even in the doing of good deeds, prayer becomes an afterthought, and then a memory, and soon no thought at all. If we do not have the habit of withdrawing to a deserted place and remaining in silence alone then it can be incredibly difficult to start. I suggest just a few minutes at first: 5, 10, or 15. Little by little we can begin to detach ourselves from the things which are not God and which, very often, do not lead to God. These superficial things occupy space in our minds, hearts and souls - a space that was intended to be filled with God and God alone.

At first, we can experience a discomfort with quiet and solitude. We may be distracted by all the things we are trying to put aside. Many things will rise up in our thoughts: memories, lists of tasks, temptations and emotions like anger or resentment. Often emotions or needs will rise which tell us we have been looking past or ignoring the more important aspects of our hearts. If we have the habit of numbing ourselves with many things, then the experience of solitude and quiet can even be painful at first. But we will soon discover the deepest need of the human heart and the only answer that adequately responds to it. When we are alone with God, we are not really alone (though it may feel that way). Only God can satisfy our deepest longings. Whatever our experience may be, at the root of all our longings, we will discover that God is never boring, nor are we. The most exciting thing about being human is our relationship with the God who loves us. And Jesus shows us how this relationship is fostered: by being alone with him, not necessarily doing any particular thing or even saying any particular thing, but just being in his presence and resting. His presence in our hearts calms the turbulent waters and gives us peace.

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