A few months ago some friends and I drove up to Austin to attend a graduation ceremony. We started talking about commencement speeches, and we noticed that most commencement speeches have two key elements in common. The first element is an emphasis on discovering your passion, talents, and gifts. The second element is a call to do something great with the passions, talents, and gifts that the graduates discovered.
We continued to reflected on why these two elements are so common in commencement speeches. One of our friends pointed out that it could be due to the qualities and characteristics of our generation. This friend has a background in sociology, and he explained to us the different positive and negative traits that generations can have. He said of our generation, the Millennial, that one of the negative traits is that we tend to be narcissistic, and to live with a sense of entitlement. We have grown up in a digital age in which people are prone to become self-centered and narrowly focused on their own lives – the massive popularity of the “selfie stick” (the best bad invention of our time!) is an example of this ‘I’ centered culture (Millennial are also called the the “Me Generation”). For this reason, the Millennial generation is less likely to commit to any kind of ideology, be it love of country, God, or truth, because they are too absorbed in their own worlds.
My friend pointed out that one of the positive traits of the Millennials is that we value authenticity, and shy away from anything that seems fake or false. And so a challenge that this generation has is to find authenticity in their faith. If we go to Mass and think we don’t experience God, we could feel phony and fake. In fact, this can be a real obstacle to the faith of a person of any generation. If we don’t experience God as real in our lives, then we may shy away from His presence and religion itself.
I’d like to invite you to analyze how Paul experiences God, in today’s Second Reading. In the reading, we find Paul alone and imprisoned. He has lost everything. He says, “I have competed well. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. The crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord will reward me on that day” (2 Tim 4:7-8). In such a situation it would have been very easy for Paul to just deny his faith. He could have said, “You know what Romans? This whole Jesus message was just a whim. I’m not prepared to die for this. I’ve changed my mind.” Or he could have tried to save himself by this message ambiguously, “Well Romans, I believe that Jesus is just one more of the gods, not the only God. We can still get along. Let’s negotiate.” But Paul never denied his faith. Paul continued to unapologetically preach his faith in Jesus Christ, to the point where everybody abandoned him. Paul writes this letter after having finished his pre-trial. Most likely Paul knows what is coming next, and that he is now on death row. But what does he say? “Everyone of them deserted me… But the Lord stood by me and gave me power…and so I was saved from the lion’s mouth.The Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever” (2 Tim 4:16 -18). I marvel at Paul’s words for they demonstrate the incredible strength of his faith, the authenticity and solidity of his experience of God, in Jesus Christ. This is a man who has lost everything, and who knows that he is about to die, yet still he says: “The Lord stood by me” (2 Tim 4:17). His faith is so real, so authentic, that in his darkest times he is still able to see the Lord standing by him, saving him in the most personal an experiential way, “the Lord stood by me.”
I’m convinced that if we haven’t experienced God in the same authentic way that Paul did, it is because we have not yet made the occasion for Him to do so. In the Gospel, Jesus talks about two aspects of how we can create this space for God to authentically act in our lives. These two aspects are about prayer. The first is that prayer is not a matter of words, or of being eloquent with God. Prayer is not a matter of convincing God how good we really are deep down inside. Prayer is not a matter of self-sufficiency, or of convincing ourselves how good we really are deep down inside. After we overcome some obstacles and excuses to not pray, we find that prayer is greatly a matter of approach, of humility, and of coming into the presence of God with our great sinfulness.
A wonderful example of humility is found in the classic spiritual book The Way of the Pilgrim. This book tells the story of a young man who wants to discover what he calls, “The prayer of the heart.” In search of this authentic experience of God in his life, he sets out on a journey, and starts meeting different spiritual teachers who give him advice. One of the first teachers he meets tells him that he must be aware of his attitude when praying, and that he must come into prayer with one of humility, being careful of anything that could come close to pride. The young man responds, “Well, I have nothing to have pride of. I am not famous. I am not rich. I’m just a poor pilgrim.” The spiritual teacher nods his head, and gives the young man the following words to reflect on,
“I am full of pride and sensual self-love. All my actions confirm this. Seeing something good in myself, I want to bring it into view, or to pride myself upon it before other people or inwardly to admire myself for it. Although I display an outward humility, yet I ascribe it all to my own strength and regard myself as superior to others, or at least no worse than they. If I notice a fault in myself, I try to excuse it, I cover it up by saying, ‘I am made like that’ or ‘I am not to blame’. I get angry with those who do not treat me with respect and consider them unable to appreciate the value of people. I brag about my gifts: my failures in any undertaking I regard as a personal insult. I murmur, and I find pleasure in the unhappiness of my enemies. If I strive after anything good it is for the purpose of winning praise, or spiritual self-indulgence, or earthly consolation. In a word, I continually make an idol of myself and render it uninterrupted service, seeking in all things the pleasures of the senses, and nourishment for my sensual passions and lusts.”
Humility is the first aspect of prayer. The second is that prayer is really about God. God must be at the center of our prayer and at its focus. In the Gospel, the Pharisee is described as speaking to himself when he prayed. He was not communing with God. He was speaking to himself, and trying to convince himself of his own goodness and power. God was secondary. God was just the excuse! But in the prayer of the tax collector, God was the focus and heart of the prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Lk 18:13). This humility captivates God’s heart. Humility is truth. When we pray with God at the center, our prayer itself becomes an act of adoration. That is the second quality of prayer: It is about God, and the wonders that he works in our lives. It is about acknowledging that I am His: I am His possession, I am His creature, and I am His son.
As long as we persevere in creating this space that we call prayer, God will become more and more authentic in our lives. St Augustine says “Grant me Lord to know who I am, and to know who you are.” As this relationship with God grows and develops, so do our lives become more real and meaningful. May the humble prayer of Mary lead us and show us how to authentically experience God’s mercy through our perseverance in prayer.
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