The Science of Prayer
Well, today's Gospel reading actually has a name, a title. It's called the Parable of the Persistent Widow. And as I mentioned at the top of the service, it's probably one of Jesus's least known parables. I mean, many of Jesus's other parables – the parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the prodigal son – most people know these stories, even if they're not religious, even if they've never read the Bible.
But the Parable of the Persistent Widow is a new one to a lot of people. Maybe that's because it's a little bit confusing. As we just heard, there's this widow who keeps coming to a judge to hear her pleas. And the judge refuses to hear her over and over again, finally, he gives in, because he's just so tired of hearing her badgering and her nagging.
Now, I used to have so much trouble with this parable. It used to really bother me, because I would think Is Jesus really saying that God is like an uncaring and unjust judge? And that we have to keep badgering and nagging God in order to hear our pleas? I mean, that just doesn't make sense with everything else Jesus had to say about God, and about prayer.
This parable is the shortest parable of Jesus's, and it only appears in Luke's gospel. So it would be easy for us to just dismiss it. But because it's in the lectionary for today, I thought we should look at it together.
Notice that before the parable begins, the writer of Luke's Gospel says, Jesus told the disciples a parable about the importance of remaining persistent in prayer, and to not lose hope.
This is the only time in any of Jesus's parables where there's an explanation before the parable. Before telling the parable, the writer wants to make sure we know what we're reading. Maybe, again, that's because the writer wanted to make sure this parable wasn't misunderstood.
Now Jesus used parables in his teachings. The word parable comes from a Latin word, parabola, which many of you may remember from your high school geometry class. Parabola is a comparison. Jesus used stories as comparisons, as metaphors. These were not true stories, but they spoke to great spiritual truths. And the great spiritual truth Jesus is trying to get across here is the importance of remaining strong in faith, strong in prayer, especially during those times when we're losing heart. That's why Jesus uses a widow in this parable. Now, yes, literally a widow means a woman whose husband has died. And in Jesus's day, a woman whose husband died has lost her support system. But Jesus is using this symbolically, the widow represents all of us, and the times in our lives where we feel like we have lost our spiritual support system.
You know, in the Bible it says we should pray for widows and orphans. And yes, you can take that literally. But spiritually, what it means is those times in our lives when we feel like we’re orphans, when we've lost our connection to mother/father God.
Jesus himself went through this. You may remember on the cross when Jesus said, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And all of us have been through those times in our lives. When we feel widowed and orphaned by God, we feel like God has abandoned us. And what Jesus is trying to get across here is, these are the times when we need to be persistent and strong in prayer, because prayer is our connection of the presence of God.
Now I love our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning from our friend Richard Rohr. Richard Rohr reminds us that prayer isn't about asking for things. It's a place beyond words. It's a place where we become conscious of God's presence with us and within us, and I loved when he said, “We don't have to do anything to attain the presence of God because we're already totally in the presence of God.” The only thing lacking he says, is our awareness.
That's what prayer is. We're pausing to become aware, to become consciously aware that God's presence is with us, with us and within us. Now, I know that prayer works, because I've seen its power in my own life.
You know, prayer isn't magic. But there is a science to prayer. There is. You know, a few Sundays ago, I was talking about the fact that science today is proving a lot of Jesus's teachings. And science today has done a lot of research on people who pray and meditate on a daily basis.
What scientific studies show is that people who pray and meditate on a daily basis have stronger immune systems than people who don't pray and meditate. They have lower blood pressure than people who don't pray or meditate. And in many cases, they are able to heal themselves physically, through prayer and meditation.
They have also done brain scans on people who pray and meditate, and people who don't. And you can look at these brain scans and see a marked difference. Jesus was giving us the scientific instructions to pray. But most of us didn't get those instructions. We were taught as little kids to pray like beggars. We were taught, get on your knees, and press your hands together, beg and plead to God. As if God was some judge, who we needed to convince. “God, please help me. Let me present my case before you, God, I'm a good person. I do a lot of charitable work. I go to church every Sunday. Please hear me.”
Prayer doesn't work that way. That's why people wonder, ‘Why aren't my prayers working?’
Because God isn't a judge.
It's like I hear people say – and it gets me so annoyed – when they say ‘A hurricane was coming, and we prayed to God to spare our house. And guess what? Our house was spared! God heard our prayers!’ We know the people at the house next to you? They were also praying, and their house was destroyed. So what are you saying? God's a judge? God liked your prayers better than theirs? It doesn't work that way.
The purpose of prayer is not to convince God of something. We're not trying to change God's mind. We're trying to change our mind. Mother Teresa. At the end of her life wrote, “I used to think that prayer changed things. Now I know for sure prayer doesn't change things. Prayer changes us, and we change things”.
Prayer changes us. That's what we're doing in prayer. Yes, we bring our worries and our fears to prayer. But then, in the silence, we are transformed in the presence, power, light and life of God. So Jesus said, When you pray, shut the door, and your father who hears you in secret will reward you. That's the science of prayer. So if you need a job, for example, you could be a beggar. And you could say, God, please, I'm such a good person, I need a job. Please give me a job. I don't have any money, I don't have anything. Or you can have your hands open, open and ready to receive. God thank you. I know that you provide. I know that all of my needs are met on time and in full because of your love and presence. God you've given me so many gifts and talents. Give me the opportunity now to use those gifts and talents in service of the world. Do you see the difference? You're not praying in lack, in fear. You're open and receptive. Okay. That's how Jesus prayed. That's how he instructed His disciples to pray. And yet sadly, most of us growing up were taught to pray like little beggars, and we're still praying that way.
Now as Father Rohr talked about this morning, Scripture encourages us to pray without ceasing. And I remember as a little boy, thinking, ‘Well, what does that mean? Am I supposed to be saying the Our Father 24 hours a day? Am I supposed to be saying the rosary constantly?’
Well, no. To pray without ceasing means throughout the day, to be conscious of God's presence and power with you and within you, no matter what you're doing, whether you're waiting in line at the grocery store, stuck in traffic, washing dishes, you are practicing the presence of God. You're making conscious contact with God, remembering God's presence and power within you throughout the day. And so that's what I would like to invite you to do this week is to pray without ceasing, throughout your day, to become mindful and conscious of God's presence. Love and Light is with you and within you, always, and in all ways.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
by Richard Rohr
I am increasingly convinced that some notion of a “prayer beyond words” is the deepest meaning of prayer, and why the Bible instructs us to “pray without ceasing.” Whatever we do in conscious loving union with God is prayer — and the best prayer, for sure. The problem, of course, is teaching Western wordy and over-thinking people how not to talk and not to think so much; it is usually not thinking anyway, but reactive commentary, and often narcissistic commentary, on some recent or upcoming situation. Oh, how long it took me to see that! Now it is obvious. This, of course, is very humiliating for people to admit, especially educated people and “proper” clergy persons. We really do like our thinking and our talking. It gives our mind and our mouth a job to do. Words have their usefulness of course. They offer a profound means of communication between human beings. They are useful in giving directions and sharing basic information. When you need to share information, words are one of the best methods of transferring data. But, even the most beautiful and moving words, never come close to the deepest, most profound dimensions of human existence. The prayer of words attempts to express our dependence on the great mystery of God. The prayer of silence is not so much to express, but to experience that dependence. We must keep in mind that the purpose of prayer is not to get anywhere. We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. In the silence, you remember that presence. You remember that you are in union with God, so there’s nothing to prove, nothing to attain. Everything is already there.
What did you think?