It breaks my heart to hear about parish closings and church demolitions, especially as I myself still grieve over the the tearing down of Chicago's Old St James some six years ago. Parishioners and former parishioners fought to save that church, gathering for prayer vigils and even sending appeals to Rome -- to no avail. If Pope Francis saw our tweets, he didn't respond and if God heard our prayers, there was no last minute rescue. Instead, the magnificent neo-Gothic church came tumbling down, and along with it, a slice of Chicago history. As one parishioner put it, it was "like punching a hole in God's heart."
Happily for the parish, liturgies continued in the auditorium under new pastoral leadership and so while the community lost its landmark building, it never ceased praying. The new space, though small and devoid of architectural embellishments, became a house of prayer where worshipers could be nourished at the table of Word and Sacrament. To this day, anyone who visits St. James Parish experiences its rich tradition of hospitality and liturgical excellence. As soon as you cross the threshold, you can feel the presence of the Spirit alive and well in the community; and, once you leave after the final blessing, you know that you have indeed been sent forth to love and serve the Lord and each other!
Liturgical prayer can be evaluated from any number of perspectives and can include such components as music, preaching and the environment-- all of which are critically important; however, there are two criteria that let me know whether I am in a community that knows how to pray or in one that merely dispenses the sacraments, providing Sunday masses so that the assembly can meet their religious obligations. The first criterion is the world view reflected in the
Prayers of the Faithful
: do the prayers reflect the needs of the church, of the world and of the local community? If there have been natural disasters, acts of violence, humanitarian crises and tragedies of any kind, do these prayers make reference to these events or are they so generic as to have no relevance? Do the prayers allow the people to cry out to God for justice and mercy or are they so devoid of emotion that it would take an earthquake to get anyone's attention, including God's? I once had the privilege of worshiping in a Zulu church in South Africa and there the people's prayers were cries from the heart that made the very rafters sing; I believe this is how the
Prayers of the Faithful
should be offered on a regular basis -- with all the passion of an Abraham pleading with God to spare the city of Sodom.
The second criterion I look for is how the assembly prays set prayers such as the
The Lord's Prayer
. If the community recites these prayers in unison, slowly, reverently, and with understanding, then I know that prayer is happening. If, on the other hand, there is a cacophony of unintelligible responses, then I know that "full active, conscious participation" of the assembly is a goal yet to be achieved.
As we focus on prayer today. we need to evaluate not only our private prayer but also our experiences of communal prayer. If we are fortunate enough to belong to a parish like St. James, then we must work tirelessly to maintain the liturgical excellence to which parishioners are accustomed; if, on the other hand, our parish liturgies drain us of energy, ignore the sufferings of our brothers and sisters across the globe and fail to engage us spiritually, then it is time to demand change and to help be that change!
"And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened."
We have all heard the expression,
"Be careful what you pray for!"
At one time in my life, I would batter the doors of heaven, asking for specific outcomes; however, when I received exactly what I had asked for, this invariably led to unhappy consequences. Eventually, I accepted the fact that I was not omnipotent and that a far better way of praying would be to leave matters in God's hands. The truth is that when we pray, "
will be done,"we can only see "darkly," thinking in terms of immediate gratification, benefits and solutions; fortunately, God sees beyond the short-term and so when we pray, "
will be done," we cannot go wrong.
There is power to "
will be done." In the first place, it recognizes who is omnipotent and who isn't in the human-Divine relationship. Surrendering our will is an act of humility that saves us from what the ancient Greeks considered to be the most heinous of sins -- hubris or pride. In Aeschylus' play,
, the warrior king, Agamemnon, returns from Troy and at the insistence of his wife, Clytaemnestra, steps onto rich crimson tapestries that her handmaids have laid as a carpet. Acknowledging that only the gods "deserve the pomps of honor and the still brocades of fame," he takes off his boots and steps down from his chariot. Instead of surrendering to the gods, he surrenders to his wife's twisted will and to his own ego. The result is deadly.
will be done" is the prayer most pleasing to God because it aligns our will with the Divine Will. Instead of focusing on "I want" or "I need" or "I wish for,"
we invite God's Will to be done in us, and through us, as well as in the world and for the world -- in other words, we are praying that the reign of God will extend everywhere, at all times and in all places, so that all time becomes sacred time and all places become God's sanctuary. When God's Will manifests in us, then we become the temple of the Holy Spirit, a tabernacle of holiness. Our human nature is divinized and we ourselves mirror the Creator who made us in the Divine image.
When we ask that God's Will be done, when we seek with all our strength and knock with all our might, then doors open to infinite possibilities and the world is transformed.