The Work of Prayer

2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

We read of two very strange, very powerful encounters with the Divine this Sunday. The gospel recounts the transfiguration of Jesus before Peter, James and John (Lk 9:28-36), while the first reading from Genesis tells of a very strange episode between God and Abram (who would later have his name changed to Abraham), our Father in the faith.

The passage begins with God promising Abram that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5). It ends with God making a covenant with Abram to provide a land for his people (Gen 15:18). But what happens between these to verses is pretty strange and confusing.

God asks Abram for animals: a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. Abram cuts the cow, goat and ram in half (but not the birds), separates the halves, and then stays with them for the rest of the day to keep the carrion birds at bay. At sunset we are told “a trance fell upon Abram and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him” (Gen 5:12). He then receives a vision of a fire pot and a flaming torch passing in between the halves of the animals he had sacrificed.

What does this strange vision mean? I have no idea. Neither does the Catholic philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft, though in his commentary on this passage, he offers three insights we might gain. Here they are, in my own words.

  1. The authors of the scriptures told it like they saw it, even if it doesn’t make sense. This strange sequence of events is included not because it makes a particular point or advances the narrative, but because that’s what really happened.
  2. Scripture doesn’t give us puzzles to solve, but mysteries to contemplate.
  3. God is strange. His ways are not our ways (Is 55:8). God often does things that don’t make sense to us. This isn’t because God is irrational, but because our reason is limited. If you think you’ve got God figured out, you don’t know him very well.

I can think of a fourth insight this passage offers: prayer takes work.

When reading about the patriarchs of the Old Testament, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses, it often seems that God speaks directly to them. We might be a little jealous, saying, “I wish it were that easy. Why doesn’t God speak directly to me like that now?”

One reason is because God’s ways are not our ways (see No. 3 above). If God chooses to communicate differently with us in different ages, that’s his prerogative. But perhaps it took more effort for the patriarchs to hear God than we think, at least some of the time.

Abram had to slaughter five animals and carve the three largest in half, then keep vigil until sundown to hear God’s answer to his question about the Promised Land. That is hot, brutal, bloody and tiring work.

Something similar can be said for our gospel account of the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John receive a vision of Jesus in all his divine glory, conversing with Moses and Elijah. But before that happens, the passage tells us they “went up the mountain to pray” (Lk 9:28). These few short words convey a lot of effort.

Most people think the mountain where the transfiguration occurred was Mount Tabor, which is a steep hill rising 1800′ above the valley floor below. It’s steep enough to be a popular hang gliding spot today. Their climb to the top of the mountain would have been very tiring and probably taken most of the day. (This is probably why Peter offered to make three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He expected they would camp there for the night).

Peter, James and John did not go through all that effort for the view, for sport, or for exercise. They did it because that’s where Jesus led them. They did it to pray.

These two passages serve as a kind of examination of conscience for our prayer life. As we reflect on them, we should ask ourselves, “How much effort do I put into prayer?”

In his great work, The Soul of the Apostolate, Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard speaks of three different kinds of work. There is physical work, which can be exhausting. There is mental work, which can be even more exhausting in its own way. And finally there is spiritual work, or what he calls “the labor of the interior life,” which he considers to be the most exacting and the most important, the work which offers the greatest reward.

We put all kinds of effort into school, our jobs, and even our recreational activities, because we know it takes work to succeed. Do we have the same attitude toward prayer? We don’t need to cut cows in half or climb mountains (though we have some beautiful ones around here — I’m talking about mountains, not cows) in order to hear God. But we do have to listen. We have to make an effort.

We have to open our Bibles and read them; and when we encounter a passage we don’t understand (like the Genesis passage this Sunday) we need to consult a good Catholic commentary to gain insight. We have to prepare for our encounter with God at Mass by reading the scripture passages ahead of time, fasting for an hour before receiving Communion, and arriving early so we have time to pray and quiet ourselves before worship. We have to do the work — because this does require real effort — to create time in our daily schedule when we shut off our phones, step away from our keyboards, close our eyes and ears to the noise of the world and really listen to God. Not just for a moment, but for as long as we need to.

Prayer is not a leisure activity, nor is it an obligation to check off a list. It is work, but it’s the work of a Christian. It’s the work of faith. It is the work that allows us, like Abram, Peter, James and John, to have life-changing encounters with God.