It is never too late to meet the Lord in prayer

“The Red Vineyard,” by Vincent van Gogh, 1888 (Wikimedia)

A Reflection for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9 Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a Matthew 20:1-16a

Have you ever had a “so that’s what she meant” moment? Something St. Teresa of Avila wrote registered for me recently. I would have first read the passage many decades ago, and it returns annually in the Office of Readings for her feast day. So why did it sprout now, so late in the working day of life?

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St. Teresa of Avila is not hard to read. Unlike her colleague, St. John of the Cross, she had no formal theological training, so she could not employ now arcane terms or theological frameworks favored in the 16th century. Her words were direct; her examples, homespun. Mystic and doctor of the church that she became, this was a woman who admitted that for the first 14 years when trying to pray alone she would not enter the chapel without a book and she could not stop staring at the clock.

I was alone with my own book and rosary the other day when I felt moved to consider the presence of Jesus. I struggle to capture in words what happened. Instead of imagining Jesus in front of me, the way one might visualize Abraham Lincoln or St. Francis of Assisi, I felt swept into the personality of Jesus when I realized that I was in the presence of the one who speaks in the Gospels.

Teresa had written:

If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that if we expect to please him and receive an abundance of his graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through his most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight.
Many, many times I have perceived this through experience. The Lord has told it to me. I have definitely seen that we must enter by this gate if we wish his Sovereign Majesty to reveal to us great and hidden mysteries. A person should desire no other path, even if he is at the summit of contemplation; on this road he walks safely. All blessings come to us through our Lord. He will teach us, for in beholding his life we find that he is the best example.

Instead of calling to mind a personage, I was permitted to perceive the very personality of Jesus. That is the great accomplishment, the inexhaustible treasure of the Gospels. They do more than repeat the words and actions of Jesus. They render him present to us. The Jesus in front of me had just finished speaking the Gospels. He had turned and was looking at me. Certainly, I felt that I had been swept up and weighed in a balance where I could find no brace.

Haven’t I done this before? Yes, I think so. What was different now? That is the inscrutability of prayer, our union with the mystery we call God.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts (Is 55:8-9).

How I wish I had words to transport others to the same place. Good teachers hunt and capture words. Insight births its own. Grace exceeds both. All that a preacher can do is pray and offer those words of prayer to the Holy Spirit, who alone makes them sprout.

Never presume that you are one of the early hires and that Jesus offers his parable only to curb your jealousy of late arrivals. No, we all come so late in the day.

Christ did not say something new to me. He only gave me the grace to feel his words, his person washing over me. St. John of the Cross taught that going to prayer expecting to hear God speak only shows that we have yet to hear the one word he has already spoken in Christ. What more can the Father who loves us say than this word of love, Jesus?

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call him while he is near (Is 55:6).

Never think that the Gospel is preliminary and that your prayer life is what follows. Always seek ways to ground your prayer in the Gospel, either in word or image.

Never presume that you are one of the early hires and that Jesus offers his parable only to curb your jealousy of late arrivals. No, we all come so late in the day. The mystery we seek has been wrapped in a beloved face and well-worn voice. In the power of the Spirit, the very person of Christ can come to us in prayer, even in the last hours of life.

More on this Sunday’s readings:

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