Monday, October 22, 2007

The Slow March to Justice

I spent the summer of 1988 in the Portuguese city of Evora, polishing up on the language. My first day, as I was settling into my quarters, I thought about the novena to Saint Theresa. It is said that, if at the end of the nine days of prayer your request is to be granted, someone will give you a rose. I thought to myself that Portugal would be a good place to test this since, alone in a foreign country, I didn't know anyone who would give me a rose.

That evening, one of the priests at the residence invited me to a prayer group in the city. At the end of the service, an older lady walked up to a statue of Our Lady. At the foot of the statue was a vase of roses which she picked up and started to hand out. The last rose went to me. I hadn't even prayed the novena! It was a gentle reminder of God's presence and action in my life.

For every twenty stories I have like that, I have another twenty about prayers which weren't answered. Looking back, though, I'm glad that most of those prayers went unanswered. With time, better things came along or my perspective changed so that I no longer wanted what I had previously begged God for.

Saint Augustine calls prayer an "exercise in desire". Prayer trains our heart to desire what God desires. The power of prayer is not in getting God to give us what we want, but in transforming our heart to love and desire what God loves and desires.

Jesus' parable teaches us that prayers must be just if they are to be answered. The widow is a symbol of those who are easily victimized and often overlooked in the pursuit of justice. Justice is done for her on a human level because of her persistence. God answers her prayer because it is just.

It is true that, no matter how seemingly ridiculous or daunting our challenges are, God cares about them even more than we do. But, it is also true that God has a greater plan unfolding through history which we are just a part of. It is by locating our place in that unfolding plan and committing ourselves to participating in it, that our prayers make any sense. I imagine that many good and pious people in Jesus' day prayed that Jesus be shown to be an imposter, or that they could come up with answers to the challenges he posed. Jesus himself prayed that the cup of suffering pass him by - but only if it be according to God's will. Just like the millions of other unanswered prayers, aren't we glad those weren't answered!

Persistance in prayer is necessary because God's plan takes time to unfold and our hearts and minds are slow to grasp God's work in our lives. God is more like a crockpot than a microwave. And like Moses who grew weary holding his arms up during the battle, we need each others help to persist in prayer both for our personal needs and in our struggle to make God's justice and peace real in our world.


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