The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
“Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:13f). For many people there can be something disturbing about this statement. Because how often have we asked, begged, and prayed for something, and nothing seems to happen? Our prayer, it appears, is unheard and unanswered. And this issue can lead to one’s falling away from God and the loss of faith. So, it seems to me that how we understand Jesus’ words is crucial.
Much, I think, depends on our perspective of life and its purpose. This life, as yesterday’s Gospel says, is a journey and we are on our way home to the Father’s house where Christ has prepared a room for us. So, we are preparing now to live with God, to share his deathless life, to have the endless joy of communion with Him. Life, then, is a preparation for eternal love, and Christ has come to show us the Way and teach us the Truth on how we might have Life, and have it in abundance; eternal life. So, this life is, in a sense, the journey, the preparation, the anticipation of something far greater to come: Life itself – being one with God through Love. And this, we might term ‘salvation’.
This perspective isn’t intuitive. Because the prevailing view is to think that this life is all that there is, and you get one stab at it, so we should enjoy it to the fullest and have life in abundance now. Or some might propose the idea of re-incarnation, in which case we have many chances at life until we learn and evolve into a higher state. But Christ who is the Truth teaches us that there is just one life – this one, right now – which is why every free choice we make, every human act, matters. And what road we take today affects where we shall go. Jesus is the Way to Life, so the Christian follows in his footsteps, desiring to make the same journey as Christ. This journeying we might also call ‘sanctification’.
Now, if this is our perspective, what might be the aim of all prayer? If we are on a plane travelling to a nice sunny destination, what do we hope for? That we get there safely. And this, I believe, is what prayer is fundamentally about. We pray, ultimately, that we might be saved by God’s grace. This is why Jesus says: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it”. And Jesus’ name literally means ‘God is salvation’, or ‘God saves’. Hence the angel Gabriel says at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).
And Jesus adds that what we pray for, that is, salvation, is brought about so that “the Father may be glorified in the Son”. As St Irenaeus says, “the glory of God is a living Man”, that is to say, a person who enjoys eternal life in heaven. So, the Father is glorified in the triumph of his grace when a sinner becomes a saint through following in the Son’s footsteps. And Irenaeus adds: “the life of Man consists in beholding God”, for it is only in heaven that Man can see God’s face.
This, of course, is what Philip asks for at the start of our Gospel passage. He wants to see the Father. And Jesus’ response is to exhort Philip to have faith in him, to co-operate with the Spirit so that even now in this life he can begin, practice, prepare to live the life of heaven through works of love, and to pray, in faith, for salvation at last in Christ’s name.
Everything else that we pray for is ordered to this end – our final salvation. And we should pray to God for salvation because this is the one thing that only God alone can grant; we can never earn it or win it. On the other hand, bodily healing, material goods, world peace, and so on, are works which can be brought about by Man in partnership with God’s grace, or sometimes through some miracle. So we may certainly also pray about these things. However, in praying, let us not forget that the lives of the apostles and saints, and of Christ himself, tell us that we will not necessarily be spared illness, pain, suffering, humiliation, and death. Hence, we pray in Jesus’ name that we may endure these trials, which are part of our human condition, with Christ in faith so that finally we may see God face to face, and rest in Love. Now, about this kind of prayer, Jesus answers: “I will do it” (Jn 14:14).
The name ‘Montepulciano’ makes me think of wine because when I was in my early teens I remember touring the vineyards of Tuscany with my parents, and being told that the wine from the town of Montepulciano, the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was especially fine – not that I was allowed to taste any of it! And today we celebrate and honour another fine vintage from that town, dating to the 13th-century: Saint Agnes of Montepulciano.
At the age of just 9, St Agnes entered a convent in Montepulciano. In fact, she’d been begging her parents to allow her to become a nun since the age of 6. This is a recurring theme in the life of many saintly nuns. They all knew from a very young age that they would only find happiness in giving their lives entirely to Christ. In this way, St Agnes lived up to her name: innocent and pure as a lamb, giving her whole life as a sacrificial offering to God.
However, we probably wonder what it is that enables such a young person to dedicate her life to God. If we live according to the flesh, seeing things from a worldly perspective, then the religious life, and especially the hidden contemplative life of a cloistered nun like St Agnes doesn’t make sense. But as the Lord says: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail”. So, it is the Spirit who inspires the religious vocation and gives it life and meaning. It is as though one were intoxicated with love for Jesus Christ, drunk on the new wine of the Gospel. Just as wine gives one boldness or folly, so the saint who is filled with the Spirit, as Agnes was from her youth, is emboldened to live a life of heroic virtue, a life of prayer that seems like a folly to the world.
In the convent, Agnes lived a life of ardent prayer that was an expression of her love for the world. And this is the heart of the contemplative vocation and its beauty: a humble withdrawal into prayer because of one’s Christ-like love for the salvation of souls and of the world. Hence, St Catherine of Siena wrote concerning today’s saint: “She had a taste and a hunger for souls. She was always assiduous at keeping vigil in prayer. There is no other way of acquiring the virtue of humility, because there is no humility without charity; the one nourishes the other”.
The Montepulciano wine is said to have a strong bouquet of violets, and I might allude to the witnesses who said that violets, roses and lilies blossomed about St Agnes’ feet as she prayed. But, the wine is also one that matures beautifully, aging from a good young wine into a truly fine and noble vintage. Might I suggest, not too cheekily I hope, that this is reflected in St Agnes’ life too? Because, I was amazed to discover that the convent she entered at the age of 9 was a kind of primitive Franciscan convent, and at 15 she was called (with papal approval) to set up and head a new Franciscan convent in Proceno. She was prioress there for 20 years. But in 1306 she had a vision. The Lord called her to establish a new house in Montepulciano itself, but it was to be a Dominican convent. Thus, this young wine of Montepulciano, as it were, first laid down in the cellars of the Franciscans matured into a saintly Dominican vintage. St Agnes would live out the last 11 years of her life as a Dominican, and so today, our Order honours her.
May she pray for our Dominican nuns, that a new monastery might be established in our Province, and for the Order worldwide. And may she pray, too, for us, the holy Church of Christ.
Yesterday’s Gospel simply says that after going without food for forty days and nights in the wilderness, Jesus was hungry. In this way we see how the Spirit immediately led Jesus after his baptism to a testing, a sacrifice of love, that anticipates the Cross. For the Lord chose to suffer the pangs of hunger, starvation, in order to experience what is a daily reality for so many people down the ages, including our own time. Nearly a third of our global population, and millions even in Britain, experience hunger because of “deep poverty”.
So, Jesus, who is God-with-us, suffers in solidarity with all who are hungry, and also with all the poor, needy, and oppressed. This is what today’s well-known parable impresses upon us. Indeed, Jesus so identifies himself with the hungry and poor, that when we see them and help them, it is Jesus whom we help and serve.
This is such an important element of our Christian faith that the Catholic Church is still the largest charitable organization in the world. This Lent, SCIAF, the official aid and international development charity of the Catholic Church in Scotland, wants to help the people of Burundi. Regarded as the third poorest country in the world, SCIAF reckons that 2 in 3 people in Burundi go to bed hungry each night. 90% of the population rely on subsistence farming, so SCIAF aims to help build peace in broken communities, and teach people new ways of farming so that they can grow enough food just to live. We can contribute to this work of justice and mercy by picking up a ‘Wee Box’ after Mass, and, throughout Lent, filling it with change. It’s a small thing for us, but together we can make a big difference to people’s lives.
But most importantly, whether our acts are big or small, let us act with love. For without love but mere obligation or duty, we may not actually see Christ in the poor and needy, in the people around us, sitting next to us. How can we grow in love, and have our eyes opened so that we recognize Christ in the world? Through prayer, especially in the Eucharist. As Blessed Teresa of Kolkata said: “Jesus made himself the Bread of Life to satisfy our hunger for God and for his love”. So, it is here in the Mass that we are filled with God’s love, that we contemplate Christ Crucified and love him. For it is on the Cross that Christ is poor, hungry, naked, and suffering, and, then, we shall be taught to see the face of our beloved Lord in anyone who is poor, hungry, naked and suffering. And we can love Christ in them, love them because they are human beings, created in God’s image and deeply loved by him. Thus, prayer grounds our Lenten almsgiving so that they become acts of love.
We may not be able to solve the world’s social justice problems, or end world hunger, but with love, our “wee” contributions become something beautiful that we can offer to God this Lent, and indeed, throughout our lives.
People “fainting with fear and with foreboding…” Perhaps this is how you feel when December comes round, and you know that there’s just over three weeks until Christmas. Advent thus becomes a time of frantic preparation, a count-down in which time is running out, stress levels rise; Advent thus becomes a time to be dreaded. And this is so if we’ve given in to the secular demands of this time of year, if we allow the supermarkets, advertisers, and general consumerism dictate the rhythm of the year.
But it does not have to be so. The Church has its own liturgical rhythm and pace, and so, we begin our new liturgical year today. And we’re invited to step into the Liturgy which shapes the year according to the mysteries of Christ’s life, so that our life is formed by Christ’s, so that we begin to breathe with the Spirit, and walk in step with Jesus. So, if we’ve come to the Liturgy harassed and out of breath because of the many demands on our time, the many pressures of the end of the secular year, then we may need to slow down and breathe deeply, allowing God’s Breath, the Holy Spirit to inspire us before we expire from all the strain of our daily life. If we’ve been running, Jesus invites us to walk with him, to even sit and rest in him. The Liturgy invites us to do this because we’re to “take heed to yourselves”, to look after ourselves.
We’re to beware of “dissipation, drunkenness and cares of this life” which weigh down our hearts. So Christ points to those burdens of a secular Advent which cause such anxiety. Dissipation, which means “wasteful expenditure or consumption”, with the credit cards bills that await us in the new year; Drunkenness, which brings a momentary escape but crushing hang-overs, more bills, and no solutions; and the cares of this life, the many anxieties, worries, and heartaches that family reunions can remind us of at this time.
Our loving Jesus knows these burdens and anxieties, he knows our troubles and distress. But he says to us: “When these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”. That is to say that in our need, he is at hand. He is here with us to strengthen us with his grace, to help us to cope and survive this time. But we have to expect him, to watch for him, to seek his gracious help.
Prayer is fundamentally an act of faith, and we exercise that faith by praying, that is, by asking, seeking, and knocking. This does not mean simply asking for whatever we want and expecting God to do as he’s told. Rather, it means having persistent confidence in God’s ability to grant whatever we ask, but at the same time, trusting that God is our loving Father, who will always give to us, his children, whatever he chooses for our greatest good. So, we should pray persistently – ask God always for what we need.
But it is likely that God, who knows all things and always wills the best for us, will answer our prayers in ways we don’t expect, that are more creative than our solutions, and that bring about our deepest joy and greater freedom. So, faith means trusting in God’s activity in the world and in our lives, with the sure and certain hope that our God of Love is bringing good to fruition, even when things seem difficult and challenging. For Jesus reveals that ours is a God of the Living, a God who brings Life out of death, and whose creative Love is more powerful and liberating than sin, evil and suffering. There are many questions that we and our contemporaries may have, but faith means that we trust that Jesus Christ is the answer to the deepest longings and questions of humanity. So, we need to seek those answers, seek to understand our faith better to help us make sense of life, and seek its meaning and purpose.
Ultimately, our faith should make our lives better, truer, happier because it has as its object God himself, who is all good, all loving, who is beauty and truth itself. This is what we believe, and, hopefully, this is something we have experienced in our own lives. We may not be saints yet, but our faith should make our lives better and give us a positive direction in life, headed towards Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If so, then, faith in Jesus is not just something relative and private but something universal for everyone, and needing to be shared with those we care for. So, perhaps we can have the mercy, compassion and courage to knock on the hearts, or even the doors, of our friends, colleagues and families, and share the Christian faith with them.
So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to ask, seek, and knock, and these three things are just what faith moves us to do: to A-Ask; S-Seek; and K-Knock, – ASK – which means to pray, to learn more about the Faith, and to evangelize. The Year of Faith begins today, and in this year, the Holy Father urges us to do precisely these three things, so, please do consider seriously what concrete things you can do to put A-S-K into action; to pray better, to seek truer answers, and to bear authentic witness to Christ through attractive, joyful lives.
If we do these three things, if we ASK, Jesus promises that his Father will not refuse us the Holy Spirit. With so great a Helper and Friend, how could we possibly fail, and with God’s Spirit of Love in our hearts, what more could we possibly want?
Muslims famously face Mecca when they pray. But what direction do you and I, we Christians, face when we pray? This probably seems a strange question to ask, but it was of great importance to the early Christians. Because worship is not dis-embodied and purely spiritual – we are not angels, after all – but, as human beings, worship and prayer is also bodily, occupying time and space, marked by postures and direction. And so, these cosmological questions mattered: when we prayed, where we prayed, and which direction. If we asked the early Christians, the Fathers of the Church, in what direction they prayed, they would have said that they were orientated, that is, literally ‘east-ed’. Hence Tertullian, writing in 197, stated that Christians pray “in the direction of the rising sun”.
Why? Origen, writing in the early 3rd century, explains that praying towards the rising sun is “an act which symbolizes the soul looking towards where the true light rises”, and, in common with many Fathers of the Church, he believed that this tradition came from Christ and his apostles. In the Liturgy, this meant that the whole assembly turned, if necessary, so that together with the priest, they faced the east. St Augustine, writing over a century after Origen, explained, “We do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth… but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God”. For posture and direction in prayer, indeed, prayer itself, is for our benefit, not God’s. So, the early Christians orientated themselves in prayer as a symbol and a reminder to themselves that their whole person – body and soul, heart and mind – had to be orientated towards God.
The idea that God comes from the east, from the direction of the rising sun, of the light has rather primal origins in sun worship. However, such religious instincts do point toward a profound truth that is fully expressed in the Scriptures. So, we read in Ezekiel’s vision in today’s First Reading: “The glory of the God of Israel came from the east… the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east”. And in the New Testament, Christ becomes identified as the “sun of righteousness” (Mal 4:2) who, in the words of Zechariah, “visits us like the dawn from on high” (Lk 1:78). So, we turn towards the east, towards the light of truth, and ultimately, towards Christ, “the light of the world” who will return in glory. As St John Damascene said, Christ ascended towards the east “and He will return just as [the apostles] saw Him ascend into heaven… [thus] waiting for Him, we adore him facing east”.
Hence, in the Liturgy, facing east was about waiting for the Lord to return, which, in a sacramental sense, he did in each Eucharist. Even when the practice of actually facing compass east faded away, the Christian liturgical assembly continued altogether to face an image of the Jesus, the “rising sun”; the Crucified One who heralds the dawn of the resurrection. Thus, the altar end of a church is always called the east end, whether or not it is geographically in the east, and we faced the cross in our prayer, orientated together to face the Lord. And this was an important ecumenical position we shared with the eastern Christians, the Orthodox.
This bodily orientation, to my mind, is still important today and it should not be overlooked. But even when St Augustine wrote, he recognized that turning one’s body and facing east was easy enough. Of much more concern to him, and this is no less true today, is the turning of one’s heart to God, of conversion to the Lord. As he put it: “You turn your body around from one cardinal point to another; turn your heart around from one love to another”. Whichever way we face, our prayer and worship must clearly move us towards this re-orientation of our lives so that when we’re asked which direction we face in prayer, we can say we face Christ, “the true light that enlightens every person” (Jn 1:9).
Figs and grapes are cultivated plants. They require the care and attention of a gardener. For untended, the ground ‘naturally’ produces only thorns and thistles. Sheep require the care and attention of a shepherd. For left to their own devices, they ‘naturally’ stray off the narrow path and on to wide plains where they can be scattered and the weak are picked off by wolves.
With these images, Christ comes to the final section of the Sermon on the Mount. Its wisdom teaches us that we need to submit ourselves to God’s tender care and attention if we’re to be fruitful. For he, the divine Gardener desires to cultivate our heart so that we produce sweet and attractive fruit. As St Paul said: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. But without his grace, our fallen human nature produces only the thorns of sin and the thistles of pride. So, we also need to listen to the voice of the divine Shepherd who calls us on the path that leads through the “narrow gate”. We might recall from yesterday’s Gospel, that this path is “hard”, but it leads to life.
How do we listen to Christ’s voice, and when are our hearts tended and cultivated?
Today’s readings are a catechesis on prayer. It is true, as the Catechism points out, that prayer involves thanksgiving, adoration, praise, and contemplation of God. But Christian prayer is fundamentally the prayer of petition: asking God for what we need. And it is born out of an acknowledgement of our human neediness, our poverty, and powerlessness.
So, when Jesus taught us to pray, as we heard in the Gospel on Tuesday, that great prayer consisted of six petitions. We can ask things of God precisely because he is “Our Father”, and so, as Christ says in today’s Gospel: “your Father who is in heaven [will] give good things to those who ask him”. If God is our Father, then we are his children, and so it is only right that we ask for what we need from him. That is the proper and good relationship of a child to his or her parent. And notice that when we ask God for things, we are also acknowledging God’s power and goodness, his Fatherly care and protection, and so the simple prayer of petition is also a prayer of contemplation and praise of who God is.