If you will, you can become all flame

On the Gospel of Luke (18:1-8)

Before I took the Dominican habit, I was a religion teacher in a secondary school. Teaching is a wonderful job, challenging and never dull, and most of my students were a pleasure to teach: engaged, switched on, curious, questioning. Like any teenagers, they could be difficult at times, but I could deal with a bit of misbehaviour or chattiness. However, the one aspect of classroom behaviour that I found impossible to deal with was apathy. When I was introducing what seemed to me to be a particularly interesting point of theology, nothing was more unwelcome than rows of glazed-over eyes, lacking any curiosity. I relished moments when students agreed with me passionately, or disagreed with me intelligently, but when I met lukewarmness, which is neither hot nor cold… well, Revelation 3:16 often came to mind.

It seems to me that this Sunday’s Gospel is telling us something similar about God. When he looks down on earth, he doesn’t want to see us merely following the rules, or coldly saying our prayers, but he wants to see our hearts aflame with passion, crying out to him day and night! Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much whether the cry is one of love, or pain, or joy, or righteous anger, so long as it is sincere. God wants to hear the cry of our heart.

Someone might object: Christ came to give us ‘the peace which the world cannot give’ (John 14:27) – our hearts should be peaceful and contemplative, not troubled and crying out. It’s certainly true that God grants us peace in prayer, but not every aspect of our lives is peaceful, and if we are to follow Christ’s command to ‘pray continually’, to offer up all of our life in prayer, then our prayer must, at various times, have the character not only of peace, but also of anguish, grief and ecstatic joy. The Christian is called to be peaceful, but never to be dull.

The thought of ‘praying constantly’ used to strike me as an awfully boring occupation. And if we restrict our prayer to the ‘nice’ or ‘respectable’ parts of our lives, our prayer certainly will be boring. But if we answer Christ’s invitation to cry out to God from our position of need, to be sincere and passionate in our prayer, then prayer, involving all of life, becomes nothing short of an adventure. There’s a story from the Desert Fathers which illustrates this dramatically:

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

If we keep a polite distance from God, merely doing our duty like Abba Lot, we will never know what it is to be ‘all flame’ and our hearts will always be smaller than they could be. But if we cry out to God like the widow in need, praying continually and never losing heart, our journey to heaven will be a lot more interesting…

 


Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. “There was a judge in a certain town”, he said, “who had neither fear of God nor respect for man. In the same town there was a widow who kept on coming to him and saying, ‘I want justice from you against my enemy!’ For a long time he refused, but at last he said to himself, ‘Maybe I have neither fear of God nor respect for man, but since she keeps pestering me I must give this widow her just rights, or she will persist in coming and worry me to death’”.And the Lord said, “You notice what the unjust judge has to say? Now will not God see justice done to his chosen who cry to him day and night even when he delays to help them? I promise you, he will see justice done to them, and done speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?
⁃    Luke 18:1-8

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