By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Near the end of his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul includes a greeting from his fellow disciple Epaphras, “a slave of Christ Jesus, always fighting for you in his prayers so that you may be perfect and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12). Paul’s description of prayer as striving on behalf of someone else has always intrigued me; the verb form he uses, agonizomenos, implies a fight, engagement in a contest where victory or defeat is at stake.
Our approach to prayer, I think, is often far too tame and lame. The typical image of a little child in pajamas, hands clasped, gently whispering sweet nothings to God, has its place in the Christian life. But it has little in common with the tragic lived experience of many, as well as a multitude of Scripture passages in which God seems to expect and even demand a shocking boldness, a struggle even, on the part of the person praying.
Abraham openly rebukes God when he intuits that destruction is coming upon the pagan towns of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will you sweep the innocent away with the guilty? Far be it from you to do such a thing […] Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?” (Genesis 18:23, 25). The patriarch intercedes audaciously by bartering with the Lord for the righteous, and coaxes out a promise from the Lord to spare the innocent. Moses takes his bold turn as the great defender of his sinful Israelites when, after the golden calf incident, he succeeds in turning away God’s just anger (Exodus 32:11-14). There is nothing cuddly and tranquil about many Psalms that begin and end with apparent anger and confusion, expressing through those emotions a defiantly strong faith: “Where are your mercies of the past, o Lord, which you swore to David in your faithfulness?” (Psalm 89:50); “How long, o Lord, will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face?” (Psalm 13:1).
The ultimate toe-to-toe encounter with God is the experience of Jacob wrestling a random man at night (Genesis 32:23-33). At the dawn of day, this mysterious wrestler bestows on the exhausted Jacob the name of Israel. According to the popular etymology, Israel literally means “he who contends with God” (Genesis 32:29). The very identity of Israel, the nation that eventually acquires the name, is intricately tied to its agonizing relationship with the Lord.
A statement by Jesus makes better sense in this light of belligerent faithfulness: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force” (Matthew 11:12). Why would Jesus advocate warfare against the kingdom of Heaven to which, by definition, no human army could ever lay siege? The concept of “storming Heaven with prayer” seizes on Jesus’ encouragement to take Heaven by spiritual force. Intercessory prayer on behalf of others, as well as a zealous desire to achieve virtue, or to be liberated from a vice, demands a brave audacity from the praying believer. God welcomes this bold approach, inviting our weak wills to struggle both to accept and, in the mysterious workings of providence, to bend
His will to ours if He so desires.
This idea is beautifully presented in a sermon by the little-known Cistercian saint Guerric of Igny. Reflecting on Jacob’s night-fight, he writes, “Do not despair, then; persevere, happy soul, you who have begun to wrestle with God. He loves to suffer violence from you; He desires to be overcome by you. For when He is angry and stretches forth His hand to strike, He seeks, as He Himself confesses, a man like Moses to resist Him. […] Be armed, then, with the power of love, whoever you are who in your devotion would force an entry into the kingdom of Heaven and make it your prize; and be assured that you will easily conquer the king of Heaven Himself.”
According to Guerric, God allows you to experience dryness and even discouragement to call forth your boldness, summoning you to a courageous duel with the divine Will: “If He seems to disappoint you with difficulties or hardness, do not be fainthearted, but understand what His purpose is in so acting. By the very contradiction, He seeks to give a fine edge to your spirit; He seeks to exercise your forces, to prove your constancy, to multiply your victories and increase your crowns.”
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.