Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Persistence is the language of love

Thursday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

“Is that your final answer?” is a question that has become familiar to all of us who have watched the television show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The host gives the contestants one last shot at changing their answers in order to win the cash prize. The story from Mark talks about a woman who in essence asks Jesus that very same question, challenging him on his original answer to her request.

In this scene, Our Lord is trying to move through this foreign territory unnoticed. However, his reputation had spread to the point where it was difficult to go anywhere without attention being drawn to him. As he was trying to leave, this pagan foreign woman who had heard about him, literally threw herself at his feet and blocked his exit. She had a daughter who was possessed by a demon. She intuitively knew that this man was the answer to her problem and she was not about to let him go. Jesus first response to her was a bit “off-putting” with the response that his role in essence was to Israel and that there would be “leftovers” for the Gentiles. Without missing a beat, she with wit and faith, let Jesus know that even the “dogs under the table could eat the crumbs.” She was not asking for a full feast because she knew that even the crumbs would be enough for her. That did the trick - her persistence, her assertiveness, her faith got the attention of Jesus and her child was healed. As St Chrysostom puts it, she presses Christ prudently, convincingly, and yet modestly by His own words; and by her humble faith and reasoning conquers Him willing to be conquered by her prayer.

Often enough, when preaching on this Gospel, preachers will say something incredibly foolish like, “This Gentile woman taught Jesus that he wasn’t sent only to the house of Israel, but to all people.” In other words, it would take a foreigner, a woman at that, to open up the narrow minded conservative world view of Jesus. What more, when Jesus sounds like an ancient version of Donald Trump in today’s passage. To paraphrase him, “One has to keep Israel for Israelites in order to make Israel great.” But it is really quite absurd to think that Jesus was taught anything by anyone, with the exception the Blessed Mother and St Joseph in the “Holy Family” school of Nazareth.  How much more absurd it is to think that our Lord would not know his own mission, that he is the universal mediator of salvation for all peoples! This all-too-common spin on the Gospel passage (according to which Jesus is taught by the woman) is that it misses the essential thrust of the event: It is not that our Lord is learning from the woman, rather the good Saviour is teaching her (and us) how to pray.

One of the seminal lessons in the passage from St. Mark is the indomitable persistence of this mother. Her daughter’s soul is at stake. The power of evil has made her captive. Imagine this frantic mother – faced with the impending and painful loss of her child. Nothing can stop her in her quest to snatch her offspring from the destructive power of the prince of darkness. It was that single-mindedness, that exclusive focus that drove her to seek out the Jewish rabbi. He, perhaps, was her last and only chance. What does this mean for us? Most likely we don’t always get it right when we pray; thus Jesus’ instruction to be persistent in praying—keep asking, don’t stop searching, continue with your knocking. In fact, ultimately what is most important for us is not necessarily that we receive what we ask for or find what we search for or walk through the door we’re knocking on. No. Rather, what is ultimately most important is that we, like the frantic mother, discover an intimacy with the Lord by persisting in our prayer.

At the heart of prayer is persistence. And persistence is the characteristic mark of devotion. Our pilgrimage has allowed us to encounter the devotional faith of the Filipinos, a faith that may often appear unsophisticated to the Western world and may even be described as superstitious. There may be some truth in the over-exaggerated expressions of devotion. But these aberrations are exceptions rather than the rule. True devotion, on the other hand, leads us to a greater love and reverence for God, rather than act as a distraction or some form of idolatry. While the liturgy is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” and “the font from which all her power flows,” it is not possible for us to fill up all of our day with participation in the liturgy. The spiritual life is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy, and yet St Paul reminds us that the Christian must pray without ceasing. The Benedictines, we heard yesterday from Bro Camillo, express this through the maxim of ‘ora et labor’ – prayer is work and work is prayer. But popular devotional practices also play a crucial role in helping to foster this ceaseless prayer. Devotional prayer is a means of permeating everyday life with prayer to God.

Thus, devotion and any other form of prayer can never to be dissected and analysed under a microscope using the tools of mathematical or scientific logic. Rather, it proceeds by way of a very different form of logic – the logic of love. If theology, as St Anselm would argue, is faith seeking understanding, then prayer must be love seeking understanding. This is why the Syro-Phoenician woman of our story did not take offence to the “insult” of Jesus. If she had just considered the matter through the lenses of rational logic, she would and she should. But she perceived the whole exchange through the lenses of faith and love, she would have just protested by walking away. No reasonable person would tolerate such insult and stay around to beg for more verbal abuse. But using the lenses of love, what seemed to be a rebuke to others becomes an invitation to a deeper faith and a more profound love. Likewise, popular devotion is not the product of an unhinged mind but the expression of love that moves beyond seemingly logical limitations. This leads us to the heart of the matter. Prayer is being known by and knowing that one is loved by a God who is the embodiment of Love itself. 

The story of this woman teaches us to pray with great humility. She accepts the stereotype that Jews would give to her kind. She is willing to be a “dog” if that is what it takes to get her prayers answered. Presumptuous familiarity and an inflated sense of entitlement were absent in the heart of this woman. She understood that she was undeserving of any crumbs which the Lord was willing to throw her way. But she had great confidence in the Lord. This was enough for the Lord. It was an implicit act of faith – a faith that promised to be salvific for her and her daughter.

So as we draw to the close of our pilgrimage here in Manila, with our own multitude of prayerful requests, some acute, others less important, we learn this simple but important lesson – we must persist. God is never deaf. God does not ignore his children. God would not be intimidated by our challenge, “Is that your final answer?” God answers us in His wisdom and gives us what we need, not always what we want. It is God who throws us the greater challenge, “Will you persevere in praying? Will you persevere in believing and hoping?” The important thing is that we should never give up or become discouraged. Remember the parable of the Syro-Phoenician woman – her persistence brought her into intimate union with the Christ of God. We too would be rewarded for our perseverance and persistence.

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