12 October 2007

Hope: Shamelessly Persistent Trust

The readings yesterday were all about hope. In the first reading, there is a shift from the focus on our obedience to God such as we saw the day before when Mary sits at Jesus' feet to listen attentively to him and learn from him, to God's own attentive listening to his people. If we are going to be people of hope, we need to keep this image in mind. Ours is a God who attends carefully to everything we say, do, think, feel, need, want, and dream of. While he is completely different, or "wholly other" than we are, he is also intimately involved and concerned with all we are and do, and invested in more ways than we can describe in what we both are and are to become.

The psalm announces the theme of the lections explicitly: Blessed are they who hope in the Lord!! Happy indeed those who trust in God's loving attentiveness. Those who believe in God are people of hope. Hope is the hallmark of a faithful and faith-filled person.

In the Gospel we really do hear what it means to hope, and in particular, what makes living hope differ from a simple act of trust, and even more from an act of wishfulness. Two elements together in particular constitute hope. The first is indeed trust, not simply trust in God's attentive listening to our needs, but trust as well that he knows our needs better than we do ourselves. "Which of you would give a child of yours a snake when they ask for a loaf of bread?" and, "If you who are wicked know how to give good things to your children, then how much more does God know to give to those who ask him?" The second element, however is perseverence or persistence in turning to God with our needs (even if our own perceptions of them ARE limited!). Luke describes a shameless persisting in asking for what is needed, a persistence that goes beyond the bounds of good taste or politeness.

As I reflect on these two elements, it seems to me that they temper and condition each other. For instance, sometimes we are timid or reticent in what we ask God for; sometimes we are really disbelieving that our prayer can or will be answered or that God cares, or that we are worthy of his attention, and we fail to pour ourselves into our petition as deeply as we can or should. Perhaps we are afraid of disappointment, or perhaps we are simply embarrassed at our own neediness; there are many reasons that may constrain us, but in any case, often our prayer is more superficial than it should be, more "polite," more "civil," more restrained or tentative. Sometimes too we pray for a short period, but give up when we don't get what we have asked for. We pour ourselves out to God once or twice, or for a period of a few days, weeks, or months, but then we simply stop.

Other times we assail heaven with our petitions taking seriously the Gospel image that recommends we be truly shameless in our asking, that we do indeed importune God with our petitions and needs, but our prayer is not really hopeful, not really trusting in the way the Gospel recommends because we have forgotten that God knows what we need better than we do ourselves. It is this particular form of trust with its openness to God's faithfulness and wisdom that transforms our persistence from mere stubbornness --- or even obsession --- into hope, and from mere self-centeredness into prayerful (God-centered) openness to the future.

Today's readings invite us to a passionate and persistent prayer life, the prayer life of a genuinely hopeful person. When we truly ask for what we need, we place ourselves in God's hands, we lay ourselves "out there" to some extent. If we persist in this, over time we pour ourselves more and more into God's hands. And if we also persist in this while trusting both that God attends carefully and lovingly to us, and too, that he knows our needs better than we do ourselves, we allow him to give us what we need most of all, and what contains all other things within itself: God himself. Afterall, Luke's gospel is also very clear that what we will be given is God himself, that this is the true answer to ALL of our prayers, all of our desperate and persistent searching. In this kind of prayer, we are shaped, and so are our needs and desires, but in this kind of prayer we are also completed and all of our concrete needs and desires met --- for everything and everyone are also grounded in this God; they exist in him, and in him they will either be given or returned to us in due time.