On Wednesday morning this week I was sitting down at Kings Beach spending some super-charged – read: caffeine-infused – time in prayer with our Lord. One of the things I find life-giving in my morning prayer-time is being out in the world. Watching people go about their daily lives as I pray keeps my dialogue with God grounded in the reality of life. This external nature of prayer doesn’t mean that I neglect the internal journey ever person must take to encounter our loving God, but it does help me to go outside of myself and remain focused on Jesus’ first commandment: to love God and our neighbour (cf. Mk 12:30-31). (Just as an aside, St Teresa of Avila’s spiritual classic, The Interior Castle is a wonderful book to help us make the necessary interior journey).
As I sat at the edge of the sand praying, one of the morning regulars at Kings Beach – who just happens to be a parishioner, let’s call him Fred – walked by and we ended up having this wonderful life-giving conversation about the struggle to hear/experience God in everyday life. This is a topic I’m fascinated about because while I stand at the ambo preaching about how God speaks to us through the readings at Mass week in-week out, dialogue with God – or rather that availability of such dialogue/experience – also happens in the ordinary moments of life if/when we have ears to hear.
One of the great privileges I have during school term time is celebrating a primary school class liturgy every week at Unity College Chapel. No matter whether it’s with Prep students or a Year Six class, there’s a line I begin with every time we gather: “We’re here to listen to God speak to us and while we’re really good at listening with these ears in the classroom (pointing to my physical ears), we’re here today to listen with these ears (pointing to my heart). Quite wonderfully, when the younger children hear this for the first time, one or two inevitably chime in with, “That’s not my ears, that’s my heart.” On Wednesday morning at the beach this week with Fred, I heard his desire to know and experience God in a deeply intimate way; I also heard God’s desire to be known and loved by Fred.
Friends, in the Gospel for today, three times we hear the question of different people who’ve been captivated by John the Baptist’s preaching: “What must we do?” (Luke 3:10-18); it’s a question which each of us must make in our own prayer but it’s also a question which opens us up to the bigger questions of life: what’s my purpose/why am I here? The answer to all such questions is inevitably quite simple: to know and love God.
Back to Fred. Fred is in his late 60’s/early 70’s and a life-long Catholic, but while he attends Mass every week, prays faithfully and pours himself out in Christian service to his family, he hasn’t yet experienced the intimate, life-changing encounter with God that he desires and which you hear me preaching about so often – why is this? Firstly, I think it’s a generational thing. Priests of yester-year didn’t always preach about intimacy with God but fire and brimstone. I certainly wouldn’t be pre-disposed to seeking that intimate encounter if my image of God was someone out of reach or someone who seemed distant. Second, and because of this, many of us are not used to talking with God as an intimate, close friend. I remember the first time I wanted to say to Jesus our loud, “I love you.” I felt awkward and out of place even whispering the words, but over time it got easier to the point that it’s now the most normal and regular act of intimacy – another way of describing this would be devotional act – in my spiritual practice. I strongly encourage you to give it a go and see how it feels.
No mater our age, background, or progress in the spiritual life, asking the question in prayer, “What must I/we do?” is a fundamental aspect of being in relationship with God. It opens up the way to a mutually enriching intimacy with Jesus who knows each one of us intimately and desires to be known intimately by each one of us.
I wish you every blessing this week as you offer up the sacrifice of your time and perseverance in the spiritual life to God.
Fr Joshua Whitehead