Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
March 31, 2010
“To give them oil of gladness in place of mourning, a glorious mantle instead of a listless spirit. You yourselves shall be named priests of the Lord, ministers of our God shall you be called.” Isaiah 61:3, 6
The story is told by St. John Mary Vianney about the farmer, who every day before going out into the fields to work would stop in the parish church to pray. One morning his fellow workers found it strange that he was late in coming. After a few hours, they returned to town to search for him. They found him still in the church, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. What are you doing, they asked, we’ve been looking for you all morning? He answered, He speaks to me, and I speak to Him.
In the mind of St. John Mary Vianney this not only described the attitude of prayer but also gave prayer a definition. It is our conversation with God, and sometimes, like the farmer, it gets the best of us. We become absorbed by this conversation to such an extent that time means nothing. I would suggest to you that at this moment of absorption the “oil of gladness” replaces “mourning.” “A glorious mantle” removes our “listless spirit,” and we realize more fully that we are “named priests of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:3, 6).
As our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, called specifically for this year to be a period of intense spiritual renewal for priests, it is time for us, as priests, in this Holy Week to take stock of what that experience has been for us. What better time than the Chrism Mass, when we renew our commitment to priestly service, to pause a moment and consider the state of our spiritual lives. If priestly ministry is to be not simply what we do but more a matter of who we are, then the spirit must be re-enlivened and re-invigorated. Since Jesus Christ “has made us a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6), we must follow the Lord with His disciples up the mountain to pray (Luke 6:12) and into the desolate places to rest in quiet (Luke 4:42). There with the Lord on the mountaintop we can spend the entire night in conversation with the source of our priesthood in Christ and descend to re-enter our boats to venture out into deep waters (Luke 5:4). Then, and only then, is the catch so great that our vessels are nearly submerged (Luke 5:7).
There are many masters of the spiritual life to whom we could turn for advice. One in particular stands out for me, St. Teresa of Avila. “Whoever has not begun the practice of prayer,” she wrote, “I beg for the love of the Lord, not to go without so great a good. There is nothing here to fear but only something to desire” (St. Teresa of Avila, Autobiography, the Kavanaugh-Rodriguez translation, p. 67). When I was a young priest, I thought of the active life—that is my pastoral ministry—as something to which I added prayer, much in the way one would add salt to a salad. I seasoned experience with prayer. However, with time I began to realize that the opposite is probably a more accurate description of the relationship between priestly life and prayer. Priesthood is prayer seasoned with experience. Prayer must come first. How does St. Ignatius of Antioch express it? “Better to be silent and to be than speaking not to be” (Letter to the Ephesians). “To be” in prayer is better than “to do” without prayer. Then, “there is nothing to fear,” in the words of St. Teresa, “but only something to desire” (ibidem). When prayer becomes “desire,” then we become lost within it like the farmer late for his work. But, to what end, some would ask, because we are such pragmatists.
Continuing her observation on prayer, St. Teresa of Avila writes, “For mental prayer, in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us” (ibidem). Here St. Teresa has hit upon the paradigm of prayer—friendship. While all believers are called to this friendship with Christ, it is within this paradigm that Jesus places His relationship with His apostles, His closest followers, and it is a relationship that we share with them as priests. In the Last Supper Discourse, Jesus will say to His apostles, “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). “Everything” Jesus has heard from His Father is, of course, the Father’s will, and that will is to embrace the cross, the suffering, the humiliation, and the death and do so freely. For our part, the friend suffers with his friend. The friend is the other self. For this reason, the friends will share in the same destiny. “If the world hates you,” Jesus will add, “realize that it has hated me first” (John 15:18). This is a statement of fact but moreover a statement of consolation. The beloved wants to experience what the lover has experienced. “No one has greater love than this” (John 15:13), than to share in the life of the beloved.
What happens when prayer is taken seriously? St. Teresa of Avila will answer, “In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord” (ibidem). We know that the central petition of that most perfect prayer is “thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10). What does this mean in practice? It means that prayer is seeking the Father’s will. It means that when I go to prayer, I seek the truth. I can share my difficulties and disappointments as a priest and human being with my earthly friends and hear them tell me what I want to hear, but when I go to prayer and I say, “thy will be done,” then the pretenses and defenses are stripped away and I see my naked intentions before the Truth. Then, in the words of St. Teresa of Avila, I see my will as “vicious, sensual, and ungrateful” (ibidem). I can see myself consumed with my ambition and preoccupied with my jealousies. I can turn to gossip and become even ineffectual as a priest. I make my own life unbearable and the lives of those around me miserable. At this point, either the prayer ceases because I cannot bear the Truth, or I make a dramatic move. I lose myself in the will of the one who loves me without reservation. This requires heroism, because falling in love is a heroic act of trust.
The will of the one who loves me is a frightening place to be at first. The truth can be terribly unsettling, but the truth is meant to strip away. Have you ever noticed how many people drop to their knees before Jesus in the Gospels? I do not think this is an accident. Our knees are where we often discover the truth. I say, “I give up. I do not even know what I want. You tell me.” In time, a voice comes: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). Then, I discover an unearthly love that exceeds my expectations, all because I lost my will in the will of the lover, all because I saw how imperfect my love was.
Following this Mass and after lunch, we will return to our rectories. The phone might ring. We will answer. It will be a priest friend. He will ask, “What do you think the bishop was talking about?” So that nothing is left to the imagination, I would like to answer that question with only one word: prayer. The priest is called to be a man of prayer. How often have we heard this said to us? We heard it in the seminary. We have heard it at every retreat we have every attended. But did we take it to heart? Did I take it to heart? I heard it, but I did not fully realize what it meant, a priest is called to be a man of prayer. Some will ask, is not everyone called to be a man or woman of prayer? That is a very good question. So, what is the difference? If prayer is relationship and that relationship is friendship, then for the priest, who is in sacrament another Christ, his paradigm is prayer. The priest must be not just prayerful. He must reflect what prayer is. This means that if I do not pray, I will shrivel up and die. It means that without prayer, I am nothing. At a much deeper level, whether or not we are men of prayer asks some penetrating questions. Why did I become a priest? Was it a genuine response or some sort of selfish preferment? Do I really love God and His Church, and if so, how much? What is the depth of my love and to what is it directed? What is my priesthood, a profession from which I receive benefits, a cozy sinecure with a title thrown in for good measure? I do not intend to be harsh, for when I ask those questions, I am thinking only of myself. They are, nonetheless, questions that we must all come to ask ourselves. The answer to them all comes in prayer.
I recall once a retreat director stressing that priests must be men of prayer. He insisted that a priest must not be ashamed of his prayer. Prayer is, after all, not an inheritance of original sin, like the shame of nakedness. We should glory in our prayer, humbly, of course, but glory nonetheless. Then, he asked, can you imagine the surprise, if when a parishioner called the rectory to see a priest, the secretary told him that the pastor was at prayer instead of simply “unavailable.” However, there is more to prayer than example.
Prayer in time arrives at agony. St. Teresa of Avila speaks of this agony, so does St. John of the Cross. Let us not forget that there are priests who suffer a great deal. I think of the remarkable stories of St. Maximilian Kolbe or Henri Kremer (cf. The Ninth Day) or Walter Ciszek (cf. With God in Russia), in places like Auschwitz and Dachau and Siberia. But there is a Mount of Olives in the life of every priest. Our model is Jesus, with his paradigm of prayer. There is nothing that we suffer that equals Jesus at prayer in the garden the night before He died. “He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (Luke 22:44). He was “sorrowful even to death” (Matthew 26:38). If we do not pray, then we will never realize how much we are really suffering or how redemptive that suffering can be. All the humiliations, disappointments, rejections, and chastisements are reduced to nothing in the face of love. But love must appear in nothingness. Ad Nihilum redactus sum. Perhaps suffering exists simply to shake us from our complacency. When I realize that I am nothing, only then can I know that I am something, and love replaces what I thought made me who I am with who I really am—a priest, loved by the first Priest and by His Father. Yes, it is in that dark night that love makes itself known most especially.
May the coming Triduum bring us the blessings of renewed prayer. May God’s grace strike at our hearts and open them to an ever more generous and sacrificial prayer, so that in the Garden of Olives of that first Holy Thursday night, we can join the Lord and repeat with Him, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Bishop Glen John Provost