August 21, 2022 – Prayer is a Discipline

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Readings || Lecturas

Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA

Previous Years: 2019




As much as we don’t like this terminology, prayer is a discipline. Now, we generally don’t like things that are disciplines because they require work. They require effort. They’re something that is not spontaneous or organic. Or sometimes we might even say not even joyful. And we want prayer to be all of those things. We want it to be spontaneous and organic and joyful. And yet that’s just not what prayer is. The letter of the Hebrews talks about “my son do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when approved by Him; for whom the Lord loves, He disciplines. He encourages every son He acknowledges.”

I just finished a book on the stages of prayer, which I think is truly excellent. It’s called The Fulfillment of All Desire by a guy named Ralph Martin. And what Ralph Martin did is he took six doctors of the church, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis de Sales – these doctors of the church, the smartest saints that the church has to offer. The ones who wrote about our theology in a way that changed our theology after they wrote, a way that gave us the articulations we still use today. He took all of their writings, and essentially he presents a series of long quotes with commentary where they talk about the stages of prayer. Now, six saints from very different eras. Bernard was from the 11th century, all the way up to Therese of Lisieux, who’s from the 19th century.

These saints from all these different eras talk about prayer in the same way. And they give us essentially the same stages of prayer. And all of them talk about the fact that prayer is a discipline. It’s something we have to work at. To summarize very briefly the initial stages of prayer: Remember, for the sake of this, the definition of prayer that I gave a month or two ago that we’re still using is “prayer is conforming our will to the will of God”, trying to understand the will of God, know the will of God, and internalize and act on the will of God. All of our conversations with the Lord are oriented toward that goal, uniting ourselves to the will of God.

So when somebody begins to pray the first time, they say, I really I want to know what the will of God is. I want to know what He has to say about my life and about my situation. I want to know where he’s coming from and to get on that page. The first time somebody sits down with the Lord and tries to unite themselves with him, almost universally, it is a moment of incredible joy. In Thanksgiving, that person is filled with the feeling of grace right away. It’s very joyful. It’s very happy. It’s very fulfilling. The Lord is rewarding that movement by showing them immediately how much grace is available through prayer. And that might last for a time so that the person begins to realize, yes, prayer is a good thing. And yes, everything I’ve been told about prayer is true.

But pretty quickly after that initial experience, prayer begins to fade. The joy and the fulfillment and the feelings of prayer begin to fade. And this is because most of the first stages of prayer are something called the Purgative Stage, where the Lord has to purify us through prayer. So the first purification that He does on us is the purification of sin, particularly major sins. If prayer is uniting our will to the will of God and sin is choosing something against the will of God, those two things cannot coexist. We cannot simultaneously desire the will of God and reject the will of God. They’re illogical together. And so the Lord has to purify us of those sins. He has to put on our hearts. “These are the sins that you’ve got going on right now, and you need to work on those.” And until we choose to work on those, the efficacy – well, that’s not quite the right word – but the feeling of joy and prayer will diminish because the Lord is trying to train us and teach us that these sins cannot coexist with authentic prayer. And so people are faced with a choice at that point, and they will do one of two things.

They will either say, “I like this sin too much” and they won’t work on it, and their prayer life will never recover. Or they will say “No, I liked that initial feeling of joy in prayer, I want that. I want to make sure I can live there for the rest of my life. I will work on this sin and to begin to work on it.” And they see their prayer life increase as that sin decreases. A cousin of that stage of prayer that often happens at the same time is what we would generally associate with the word discipline in English, which is trying to develop a habit, a disciplined habit of prayer. If we only pray spontaneously, it will not go well for us after a time. If we say, “Oh, I’m feeling really prayerful. I’m going to pray for 20 minutes or 30 minutes”, and then the next two or three days we don’t get around to it. We’re too busy. We don’t make the time, we don’t feel like it. And then we try to pray again for 30 minutes or 15 minutes, and it’s kind of in and out and up and down. And it’s just whenever we feel like it, our prayer will never become truly deep and fulfilling. It just won’t. That burst of prayer and then the negligence of prayer will eventually become associated with the bursts of prayer becoming less fulfilling. They become less joyful because the Lord is trying to teach us what it looks like to be a holy, happy and healthy human being.

And that looks like carving out time for prayer. Again, we’re trying to form our will. Our emotions are not governed by our will. Our emotions just happen. Sometimes we feel like praying, sometimes we don’t. But if all of our decisions are made based on emotion, then prayer will never become a discipline. Instead, we have to train our will, and our will requires habits, and our will requires making hard choices. And so the Lord teaches us over time to make time for prayer, whether we feel like it or not. And as we make that time for prayer, we will begin to see more joy and fulfillment in prayer as our prayer gets more regular. I find the hardest day to pray – and Father Mike Smith says this as well in his podcast – the hardest day to pray is the day after I forgot to pray because that’s the day where I really have to make the hard choice and I don’t feel like it. And a lot of times that prayer isn’t great. It’s not fulfilling. I’m just trying to get it done. But the best day for prayer is after I’ve prayed well and consistently for the previous six days. That seventh day of prayer is really, really good because I’ve hit a rhythm with the Lord and our experience of prayer is proportionate to our ability to do that.

That’s what it looks like to say that the Lord disciplines us. He’s teaching us how to live a good and fulfilled life by helping us see essentially the cause and effect in our prayer life. After all of this happens, after we remove from our lives the grave sins, after we begin to have a habit of daily prayer, a discipline of daily prayer, then our prayer life begins to look pretty good. That initial stage of prayer is kind of like gorging on candy. It’s like, yeah, I got all these sweets, and I feel really good about that. But it doesn’t last. After we’d been developing that discipline for some time, prayer becomes a lot more fulfilling and nourishing, like an actual meal with vegetables and nutrients.

But then the Lord will do two other things that I need to prepare you for. First is He will do something that’s often referred to as the Dark Night of the Senses. It is not the Dark Night of the Soul. That is something saints like John of the Cross will go through. The Dark Night of the Senses is the idea that all of the sensual pleasures of this world begin to lose their flavor in order to really emphasize the primacy of prayer. Not that prayer is something that we add on to the rest of our life, but it is the foundation of our life. That constant unity with the Lord and desire for His will. The Lord will remove the pleasures of other things in this life. So the things we used to enjoy: our hobbies, our pastimes, sometimes even our time with family, that will for a time lose its joy. And the only thing that satisfies us will be prayer. But a lot of times we experience that as a restlessness. We might say, “Oh, I’m kind of going through a rough time”, or we might call it a mid-life crisis or an existential crisis. But it’s not always a midlife and it’s not always existential, but it’s just I don’t there’s nothing that satisfies me right now. Well, sometimes we experience that, and we don’t think that means I need to go to prayer. We think I’m just in a rough spot and I’m unsatisfied. And we go to bad things. We go back to sins. Sins that made us feel good. We might go to overeating or alcohol or other things that we go to; these coping mechanisms. But the Lord is trying to teach us again a discipline. He’s trying to discipline us and teach us “No. the thing that you want, the reason you’re restless, is because I’m calling you to something deeper and you’re not looking into that depth. You’re not looking to where I’m calling you. You’re still looking to these things that aren’t bringing you joy anymore. Intentionally, I’m making sure they don’t bring you joy anymore. And yet you’re still not looking at prayer starting to solidify for us that prayer is the foundation of our life.” And once we learn the lesson, the joy of the other things often comes back. But we have to go through that difficult period first.

And after experience that he does one other thing. He does a lot more. We’re not really talking about the Illuminative or Unitive of stages of prayer, but that’s fine. We’ll get to those ones when all of us are saints. But the last thing he kind of does in this stage, which is unexpected and oftentimes very disappointing, is that at some point he will remove even the joy of prayer. The first stages where it’s sin or it’s schedule, that’s kind of our fault. We have to work on stuff to regain the joy of our prayer life. But there’s another stage where it’s not our fault at all. We’re doing everything right. We’re not living in sin. We’re not being negligent with prayer. We have a good discipline. We’ve been with the Lord. We have a constancy. And then He’ll take away even the joy and fulfillment that we feel during prayer. I’ve struggled with this. I have journal entries over years where I’m angry with the Lord about having to experience this because I’m looking for fault in myself and I can’t find it and I’m going to him and I’m saying, “Why are you doing this to me? Shouldn’t this be more joyful?” But the reason he does that is, again, we’re trying to form our will and he’s trying to make our will strong; a will of steel. And so he’ll take away even the joy and fulfillment of good prayer because he’s trying to tell us not to rely on or go toward the feeling. A lot of times we pray not because we love God, but because we love the feeling of God. I love feeling fulfilled. I love feeling joyful. And the Lord has taught me I find that in prayer. But I go to prayer for the feeling, not for the love of God. And so He’ll remove the joy and the feeling of prayer to train us, to go to him in the good times, in the bad, to train us to not put stock in our emotions, but to know that if we go to him, we can trust. We can trust that even if I don’t feel good in prayer, even I don’t feel fulfilled, even if I’m not getting out of it what I used to. He’s training us to trust that he is good, that he is loving, and that he is taking care of us even if we don’t feel he’s training us in faith. Truly, that virtue of faith.

We need to know this because as my seminary professor put it, every serious Christian at some point will experience this because the Lord has to train all of us. And the problem is that Christians are not warned that they will experience this. They’re not warned that after they do all the steps and get that daily habit and they go through the initial training, that at some point prayer itself will lose its flavor. And because they’re not warned, they get there and they blame themselves and go through a horrible shame series that really destroys their dignity and their self worth, or they will think that they’re doing something wrong again, blaming themselves, or they will say, I have to change everything. And so all of the good habits that they’ve developed in prayer, they fall off and they change and then they kind of lose their prayer life and have to start from square one. Christians aren’t told or trained that the purpose of that period of prayer is endurance. You stick with the habits you developed. You say, “You know what I’m doing what I’m told I need to do. I’m doing 15 to 20 minutes of prayer a day. I’m not living in sin. I’m being close to the Lord. I’m doing that and I’m not feeling good.” Keep doing it. The Lord is training you through that. And the point is that endurance. To endure is the is the purpose. And once you do that, the other end of that is super fulfilling because now your will is strong, it’s developed, it’s habitual. Now you can go through even suffering without a lot of turbulence because the Lord has trained you to do so.

Returning to the Letter to the Hebrews: it is really important what it says about discipline. It says that a father disciplines his children. We don’t discipline people we don’t love. If somebody is off doing something and we don’t love them, we just let them continue in that self destructive habit. But parents don’t do that. Parents who love their children intervene in the lives of their children. All of these things we’re talking about, all these disciplines where prayer is not always an immediately joyful or fulfilling. This is because the Lord loves you. He cares about you. He wants you to be a healthy, happy and wholly human being. And he knows that in order to do that, he has to take you through these stages, some of which are painful and difficult. But he does it like a father who loves his children. He does it because he knows that your future will be so much better and will have so much less suffering if you suffer a little bit now through discipline. The foundational belief that we have about God is that God is love, which means that everything God does is for your good. We have to trust the discipline, particularly discipline and prayer is for our good. And so we engage in that. We embrace that. And we say, Lord, I’m willing to go through these stages because I know that they are expressions of your love, the love that a father has for his children, whom he wants to be happy, healthy and holy.


Como discutimos en una homilía reciente, el objetivo de la oración es unir nuestra voluntad a la voluntad de Dios. Hablamos con Dios, escuchamos a Dios, suplicamos a Dios, aprendemos acerca de Dios, todo para que podamos desear lo que Él desea y hacer lo que Él quiere que hagamos.

Antes que nada, la voluntad de Dios es amarnos, y que recibamos y respondamos a ese amor. Pero nuestra segunda lectura de la Carta a los Hebreos nos pide que recordemos cómo es el amor verdadero. Hebreos nos recuerda que un padre que realmente ama a sus hijos disciplina a esos niños.  “Soporten, pues, la corrección, porque Dios los trata como a hijos; ¿y qué padre hay que no corrija a sus hijos? “

¿Por qué un padre disciplina a sus hijos? Porque quiere que crezcan para ser adultos felices, sanos y santos. Él sabe que debeenseñarles, y enseñar no siempre es fácil o agradable. Un padre verdadero y amoroso no desea ver sufrir a sus hijos – eso siempre rompe el corazón de un padre – pero sabe que un poco de sufrimiento a través de la disciplina evita mucho más sufrimiento en el futuro.

Esto es lo que Dios hace con nosotros, especialmente con y a través de la oración. Todos los santos reportan exactamente la misma progresión en la oración. Cuando una persona comienza a orar por primera vez – y me refiero personalmente, al Padre o a Jesús, con la escucha y la conversación – cuando  una persona comienza a orar por primera vez, se llena de alegría y buenos sentimientos. Son recompensados inmediatamente por tener contacto personal con el Señor. Esto es como los niños pequeños con sus padres, cuando están emocionados solo por ver a sus padres y jugar con sus padres.

Pero después de este período inicial de gozo, el Señor comienza a purificarnos de nuestros pecados. El pecado, después de todo, es elegir algo contrario a la voluntad de Dios, por lo que el pecado no puede coexistir con la oración. Si estamos tratando de unirnos a la voluntad de Dios a través de la oración, no podemos elegir simultáneamente actuar en contra de la voluntad de Dios a través del pecado. Así que el Señor comienza a traer nuestros pecados a nuestras mentes, mostrándonos cómo nos oponemos a él y lo ofendemos a través del pecado. Y nuestra oración comienza a secarse y traernos mucho menos gozo mientras nos aferremos a esos pecados. Esto es especialmente cierto para los pecados graves, como negarse a venir a la iglesia o tener relaciones sexuales fuera del matrimonio o negarse a perdonar a alguien cercano a nosotros. El Señor quiere disciplinarnos, enseñarnos a ser mejores cristianos, y lo hace quitándonos parte del gozo que inicialmente se nos dio hasta que decidimos comenzar a trabajar en nuestros pecados y reparar nuestras vidas.

También podríamos decir que esta es la dinámica cuando estamos tratando de hacer tiempo para la oración, también. No estoy preparado para llamarlo pecaminoso, pero cuando oramos durante 15 minutos un día, y no oramos durante los próximos dos días, y luego oramos durante 20 minutos en el cuarto día, nuestra vida de oración será seca y difícil. Tal vez originalmente el Señor traería gozo a este tipo de oración, se convertiría en algo de oración es mejor que ninguna oración y él quiere recompensar eso, pero eventualmente necesitamos aprender a ser lo suficientemente disciplinados como para orar consistentemente todos los días, y solo una vez que aprendamos esa disciplina volverá el gozo de la oración.

Nunca estamos completamente libres de pecado o de la tentación de saltarnos la oración, por lo que el Señor siempre nos ayudará a trabajar en nuestros pecados y nuestra vida de oración, pero después de que los pecados mayores se eliminan de nuestras vidas y somos consistentes con la oración diaria, nuestra vida de oración se vuelve más profunda y enriquecedora. Al principio, la oración es como un montón de dulces, pero ahora la oración es más como una comida completa y rica: nos alimenta, nos sostiene y nutre.  Nos da una energía profunda y duradera.

Sin embargo, el Señor sabe que estamos tentados a ser como adolescentes que a menudo regresan a casa en busca de comida, refugio e Internet, pero que en realidad no quieren estar con sus padres que les proporcionan esa comida, refugio o Internet. Así que el Señor siente la necesidad de discipularnos de una manera nueva. En esta etapa, él quita gran parte de la alegría que solíamos experimentar a través de nuestros pasatiempos, actividades y trabajo, y la única alegría que encontramos es en la oración. A veces experimentamos esto como un castigo, pero en realidad no hemos hecho nada malo. El Señor sólo nos está enseñando que el único gozo verdadero en este mundo viene de Él, no de las cosas pasajeras del mundo.

Sin embargo, una vez que hemos aprendido esta lección, el Señor hace algo inesperado. En esta siguiente etapa, la última etapa que discutiremos hoy, el Señor también elimina el gozo de la oración. ¿Por qué haría eso? Si hemos aprendido que nuestro verdadero gozo proviene de la oración, ¿por qué entonces haría que la oración no tuviera gozo? Eso parece contraproducente.

La razón es porque Él está formando nuestra voluntad, nuestras elecciones. El Padre nos disciplina para que estemos listos para convertirnos en adultos. Y los adultos eligen hacer las cosas porque son lo correcto, no porque nos hagan sentir bien. Para ser cristianos adultos, debemos elegir orar porque sabemos que la oración es buena para nosotros, no porque tengamos un buen sentimiento cada vez. Una vez que hayamos formado nuestra voluntad, una vez que hayamos soportado este período en el que la oración ya no nos trae alegría, entonces estaremos preparados para prosperar en cada momento de nuestras vidas, el bueno, el malo, el alegre y el trabajador.

Pero me preocupo. Me preocupo por nuestros feligreses, porque algún feligrés puede haber llegado a esta etapa y luego haberse rendido. Comenzaron a orar, eliminaron los pecados mayores de sus vidas, incluso llegaron a un punto en el que creían auténticamente que la oración era la verdadera fuente de su alegría; pero cuando la oración dejó de sentirse bien, cuando la oración dejó de hacer cantar su corazón, se detuvieron. No aprendieron la lección. En lugar de recibir la disciplina del Padre amoroso, huyeron de casa. Mis hermanos y hermanas en Cristo, los santos de la Iglesia tienen muy claro que la oración es un proceso que se siente como disciplina. Nuestro Padre nos ama, pero porque nos ama, siempre nos está ayudando a crecer, y ese crecimiento puede ser difícil. Por favor, recuerde dos cosas. Primero, tu Padre Celestial te ama profundamente y siempre está trabajando por tu bien. Segundo, con respecto a la oración, todo lo que se espera que hagas es aparecer y darle a Dios su tiempo todos los días. Si haces eso, ya sea que la oración te traiga gozo ese día o no, debes saber que has hecho todo lo que el Señor te pide que hagas, y que Él está trabajando para hacerte un hijo suyo feliz, saludable y santo.

1 Comment

  1. Connie Ferro says:

    Thank you for posting these homilies. I no longer live near Assumption, but I am so truly fed listening to you teach.

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