Sunday, September 8, 2019

Practice and Prayer

Homily to Saint Anselm Parish

As most of you know, I will be having surgery on my brain this Thursday to correct eighteen years reckless rugby, so I would appreciate the prayers. The prognosis is good. I met with the surgeon a month ago, and he told me it was entirely likely that the tremors in my right arm and leg might disappear entirely.  Of course, I asked him if I’d be able to play the violin.  He said that was entirely possible…which is strange, because I’ve never been able to play the violin.

I know this because the last term of my senior year of college, I decided that I needed to learn how to play a musical instrument. So I walked into the lobby of the Shephard School of Music at Rice University and signed up for violin lessons.  They handed me a $20,000 violin, appointed a tutor to give me lessons, and I was off.

It was a disaster.

No one starts the violin at 22.  It’s the kind of instrument you have to grow into.  And it can be years before you can begin to produce anything resembling a melody.  What’s more (and I learned this within the first few days) no one wants to share a dorm room with a beginning violinist.

By the end of the semester, I had alienated my roommates, my teacher, my guidance counselor, and cultivated a deep and visceral abhorrence for sheet music.  My recital was so painful, one of the three grad students compelled to be in the audience actually gagged.

This is what happens when you make a life-changing decision without stopping to consider the consequences.  And yet, often this is how we approach the spiritual life.  Without training, practice, perseverance or guidance, we jump right in, expecting God to respond with gratitude.  And when we don’t see immediate results, we despair.  Granted, there’s nothing wrong with extemporaneous prayers, and you don’t need a degree in Theology to talk to God…but how often, and how quickly do we become frustrated when our early attempts are not met with spiritual consolations?  “I don’t go to mass because I don’t get anything out of it.”  Of course you don’t get anything out of it. You don’t put anything into it. I don’t get anything out of basketball; but that’s no surprise because I don’t practice.  “Prayer,” said Saint Teresa of Avila, “must be accompanied by reflection. A prayer in which a person is not aware of Whom he is speaking to, what he is asking, who it is who is asking and of Whom, I don't call prayer, however much the lips may move.”

I remember listening to my tutor play, and saying, “Golly, I wish I could play like that.”

“There’s really nothing to it,” he answered.  “Just keep practicing two hours a day for the next eighteen years.”

Why should prayer be any different?  Everyone understands that brain surgery takes practice and study; golf takes practice and study; plumbing takes practice and study; no one would just get up one morning and decide to rewire their home.  All these things., it is understood, require training and forethought.  Yet when it comes to art and prayer, suddenly everyone’s an expert.

Jesus warns us against this kind of presumption: Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost?  When it comes to your spiritual life, it’s your soul on the line.  The stakes are eternal, and the cost is everything.  So it’s worth investing some real thought and work in preparation.

As Catholics, we have an inexhaustible wealth of resources to draw on: sacraments, saints, scripture, and tradition.  “Are you making no progress in prayer?,” wrote Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque.  “Then you need only offer God the prayers which the Savior has poured out for us in the sacrament of the altar. Offer God His fervent love in reparation for your sluggishness. And unlike learning the violin, it’s never too late.  It’s all well within our reach.  All is grace. All is offered without charge and without limit; so we have only to reach out and take it.  But take it we must.

The deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans; but of this we can be assured: every prayer is heard.  Every hour spent in prayer is productive.  Thus are the paths of those on earth made straight.  And may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours; prosper the work of our hands for us!

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