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Terrance KleinJuly 19, 2023
View from inside tower clockPhoto courtesy of Unsplash.

A Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19 Romans 8:26-27 Matthew 13:24-43

If God is all-powerful and he loves us, why does he not respond immediately to all our prayers? Here is the thing about unanswered prayers. Many have been granted before we make them because God has already given the one thing necessary, what we really need: time itself. Time is where God answers prayers even before they are asked.

As a child, St. Thérèse of Lisieux had a similar struggle with unanswered prayers. Good Catholic that she already was, she transferred what she wrongly expected of God onto the Vicar of Christ, Pope Leo XIII. We can learn something about God, time and prayer from her experience.

Thérèse knew very early that she wanted to become a Carmelite nun. She was sure that God was calling her to the convent. Two of her siblings had already entered the Carmel in Lisieux, and a 14-year-old Thérèse desperately wanted to follow them. But her bishop wisely refused to relent on the minimum age requirement for entrance into religious life.

As a child, St. Thérèse of Lisieux had a similar struggle with unanswered prayers. We can learn something about God, time and prayer from her experience.

Thérèse was nigh inconsolable, though her widowed father certainly tried. Louis Martin proposed a pilgrimage to Rome for his two youngest daughters, Céline and Thérèse. Why not have a wonderful Catholic experience that would later be closed to Thérèse once she was allowed to become a Carmelite? It did not work out as planned.

Here’s Thérèse:

After the Mass of thanksgiving, following that of the Holy Father, the audience began. Leo XIII was seated on a large armchair; he was dressed simply in a white cassock, with a cape of the same color, and on his head was a little skullcap. Around him were cardinals, archbishops, and bishops, but I saw them only in general, being occupied solely with the Holy Father. We passed in front of him in procession; each pilgrim knelt in turn, kissed the foot and hand of Leo XIII, received his blessing, and two noble guards touched him as a sign to rise (touched the pilgrim, for I explain myself so badly one would think it was the Pope.)

Before entering the pontifical apartment, I was really determined to speak, but I felt my courage weaken when I saw Father Révérony standing by the Holy Father’s right side. Almost at the same instant, they told us on the Pope’s behalf that it was forbidden to speak, as this would prolong the audience too much. I turned towards my dear Cèline for advice: “Speak!”, she said. A moment later I was at the Holy Father’s feet. I kissed his slipper and he presented his hand, but instead of kissing it I joined my own and lifting tear-filled eyes to his face, I cried out: “Most Holy Father, I have a great favor to ask you!”

The Sovereign Pontiff lowered his head towards me in such a way that my face almost touched his, and I saw his eyes, black and deep, fixed on me and they seemed to penetrate to the depths of my soul. “Holy Father, in honour of your Jubilee, permit me to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen!”

Emotion undoubtedly made my voice tremble. He turned to Father Révérony who was staring at me with surprise and displeasure and said: “I don’t understand very well.” Now if God had permitted it, it would have been easy for Father Révérony to obtain what I desired, but it was the cross and not consolation God willed to give me.

“Most Holy Father,” answered the Vicar General, “this is a child who wants to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen, but the Superiors are considering the matter at the moment.” “Well, my child,” the Holy Father replied, looking at me kindly, “do what the Superiors tell you!” Resting his hands on his knees, I made a final effort, saying in a suppliant voice: “Oh! Holy Father, if you say yes, everybody will agree!” He gazed at me steadily, speaking these words and stressing each syllable: “Go…go…You will enter if God wills it!” (His accent had something about it so penetrating and so convincing, it seems to me I still hear it.”)

Doctor of the Church that she would later become, little Thérèse had a mistaken view of ecclesiology, thinking that popes plop themselves into any given moment of the church’s life with a directive. Her theology suffered from a similar view of God. Thérèse pictured an all-powerful being standing at the apex of the world, ready to insert his will into any situation.

Time is the unfolding of God’s will.

Why, you may wonder, is that view of God in error? That is the issue, both for Thérèse and for your own fervent prayers.

First, God is not one more being within the world, not even the highest being, the one at the top of the pyramid. The world comes forth from God as a gift of love. God is the giver. He does not lie within the gift. Or, as our Lord Jesus himself put it, God is the sower, not the seed or the soil.

The kingdom of heaven may be likened
to a man who sowed good seed in his field (Mt 13:24).

The world is like a seed, something destined to grow. It exists in time. It changes. It degenerates and develops. And we are seeds in the soil of time.

God gives before we ask. And what does God give in answer to our prayers? What God knew we needed all along: the kingdom.

God, on the other hand, is the sower. God is not an all-powerful person who exists in time. No, God sows in time. God does not need to subdue time, force it to do his will. Time is the unfolding of God’s will. This is why the Lord Jesus could reduce all our heartfelt petitions into a single prayer: Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

God is the goodness that creates and sustains a living world, one which unfolds into his love in the movement we call time. So Pope Leo XIII was quite on point when he told young Thérèse: “Go…go…You will enter if God wills it!”

So often when we pray, we want God to interrupt time, to undo it, but God does not need to tinker with time. As his loving gift, even in its radical freedom from God, time attains the end for which it was created. We are the ones who need to trust time, to trust God’s love in creating it and us within it.

This does not mean that we should not pray fervently. Not at all. The Lord Jesus enjoins it. But it does mean that our prayers were with God before they were even uttered. The sower was never on the same level as the seed and soil!

How wisely Thérèse could write, “It was the cross and not consolation God willed to give me.” Yes, in that moment, so it appeared and so indeed it was. But the cross and consolation do not stand in opposition. Neither do divine omnipotence and human autonomy.

God gives before we ask. And what does God give in answer to our prayers? What God knew we needed all along: the kingdom. And what is the kingdom? A world, our freedom and a redeemer, who draws it all into a loving loop.

More: Scripture

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