Exercising Desire

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – July 24, 2022

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138:1-3, 6-8; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

New Year’s At the Gym

My least favorite month of the year is January—by far. Hate it. Not because it’s cold, not because I hate my birthday or something, no. I hate it because overnight—literally—the gym is overrun with a bunch of people that have decided that, “This is the year I get in shape!” And I have nothing against people getting in shape, that’s not it (please, take care of your health.) I hate it for purely selfish reasons: here all the rest of the regulars and I have been showing up day after day, developing a routine and a system of sharing the space and the equipment, a delicate balance to achieve—and overnight all of these new people come along and throw off the delicate equilibrium for four weeks.

But why do they show up? Well, for some reason they’ve decided that it would be beneficial to them to get in shape, to be healthier. And so they set their eyes, they fix their attention on that goal, they embark on the road toward that goal. Their life then becomes marked by exercise, by a desire to achieve their fitness goals. Right? With a specific goal in mind, they implement a routine of exercise. Why exercise? Because this is what you do in order to achieve that goal. By recognizing that “being in shape” is important, concrete steps are taken to expand their fitness—better cardiovascular strength, better physical strength. And the key to it all? Persistence and consistency.

Is There A Method To Your Madness?

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Is Fr. Michael really going on a ‘New Year’s at the gym rant’ in the middle of July?” And the answer is “yes,” I am. But there’s a reason! (There actually is a method to my madness. I’m not as A.D.D. as I seem.) Over the past several weeks we have been moving in an intentional direction. And we’ve been using St. Augustine as our guide.

Several weeks ago I started us in this direction when I spoke about the very famous line from St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions). In the Gospel that day, Jesus “resolutely determines to journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), and Jesus invites people to follow him. Do we remember that? What do the people do? They start giving excuses, start telling Jesus all the other things they need to do first, and that they’ll follow him later. “Let me first go do this. Let me first chase this goal. Let me first…” This is what we do! And we saw that as long as we do that, our life will be nothing but a restless, frantic search for the next experience of something…always leaving us with the question afterwards of, “Ok. And now what?”

The next week we started to catch a glimpse of the problem: when we set out on this road, set out on the path to follow Christ, we tend to fall, lose sight of destiny, get beaten and robbed and left “half dead” along the road. As St. Augustine tells us, on this journey “you do not yet see what you long for,” and life is long, and it’s easy to get distracted; the world beats us down; we become discouraged. This is the week that we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan—but really, the parable of the traveler on the road that is beaten and left half dead. We are the traveler in need of help. The world’s promises that we latch on to do not satisfy. And we’re left robbed of peace and joy, beaten, half dead.

And so that led us into our liturgy from last week. Plagiarizing St. Augustine yet again, we heard that the incredible fact about Christ, the reason Christ is so important, “Christ’s grace consists not in the example he gave us, but in the gift of his person to us” (Contra Pelagius). Remember the Gospel, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. One thing is necessary.” In the frantic, distracted, and chaotic ways we live our lives, we miss the one thing necessary, the one thing needed. In our daily life, we muddy, and confuse, and lose touch with the profound and true desire of the heart, the destiny we originally set out on the path to follow. Remember: our hearts’ one true need is Christ, and Christ alone.

Exercising Our Desire

“Beautiful stuff, as usual, Father. But how do I do this??” That’s what some of you have begun to ask me. “What do I do?” And that’s what our liturgy today addresses. The simple answer is “pray.” But I know: “pray” doesn’t seem very helpful, because we probably don’t understand “prayer.” When we hear “just pray,” we usually hear, “Just go say some prayers and move on with your life.” And that’s not helpful. St. Paul says we should “pray always” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). So are we supposed to be saying prayers all day? No. So what do I mean when I say that “prayer” is what we should be doing? How does this help? What is this praying all about?

So let’s plagiarize St. Augustine one more time. Augustine asks this question, the question of “why should we pray?” And Augustine’s response is: “He wants us to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us.” (Letter to Proba).

“He wants us to exercise our desire through prayer.” Have you ever thought about prayer like that? “Exercising”? And specifically, “exercising our desire”? Go back to New Year’s at the gym: here are all of these new people that have come to the gym and committed to exercise, because exercise is the way to reach the goal. Prayer is the way we exercise! And specifically, it is the way we exercise our desire. Day after day we “exercise our desire,” the one true desire of our heart by calling to mind and placing before our attention the desire we have for Jesus Christ, that Christ would be present, that Christ would show up in our life, that we would see him.

And why? Augustine continues, “He wants us to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us.” Prayer isn’t about “saying prayers,” it’s about preparing us to receive the gift he wants to give us, sustaining our attention—so that when Jesus Christ comes, when he shows up in my life, I’ll be able to recognize him and receive him, receive the fulfillment and happiness only he can give.

The Our Father Challenge

Augustine says it well, “So that we might obtain this life of happiness, he who is true life itself taught us to pray” (Letter to Proba). That’s the Gospel today: Jesus teaches us to pray. And the way Jesus teaches us to pray, the “Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father”—this is “the quintessential prayer of the Church” (CCC 2776). This is a prayer Augustine describes as containing and including all other prayers (c.f., Letter 130 12, 22). And along with this prayer, Jesus gives parables about persistence in prayer! That’s not a coincidence.

Again, think of those New Year’s fitness goals: just like the key to achieving your fitness goals is persistence and consistency, so too with our goal of of experiencing the difference in our life that only Christ can give—the key is persistence and consistency. That’s why Augustine concludes his teaching on prayer by saying, “Desire unceasingly that life of happiness…and ask it of him who alone is able to give it.”  Unceasing prayer, unceasing exercise of our desire, persistently and consistently placing before our attention the desire we have for Christ to come and fulfill us, to satisfy us, to bring true joy and happiness, to give us rest. Only Jesus Christ responds to this fundamental desire of the heart. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in [him].” Again, the reason for praying is not because we need to say more words in God’s direction, no. We need prayer in order to sustain our attention, to exercise our desire, to recall that our one true desire in life is Jesus Christ…it’s only him. 

“Take courage, I have overcome the World.”

In the world we live in today, if you are not laser focused and clear and strong and “fit” in your desire—in the world we live in today, if you don’t know what your heart truly desires, you will be told what it desires. The world will tell you about the latest and greatest thing to desire. The world will tell you, cable news will tell you, Facebook will tell you—your little magic screen into the world will tell you what you should desire. It will promise to be what you desire.

Don’t fall in to that! We all know how easy it is to do that. We all know how difficult it is to keep our eyes and our desire fixed firmly on Christ. And the exercise happens through prayer. We need to begin to soak our lives in prayer, saturate our lives in prayer.

So here’s the challenge. And if you have your phone I want you to pull out your phone (yes, permission to use your phone in Mass). I want you to set a reminder, an alarm, three times each day to pray the Lord’s Prayer. (The earliest Christians would pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. c.f., Didache 8) And if you don’t have your phone, just make a mental note to do this when you get home. Three times a day, alarm goes off, and I want you to very intentionally, very purposefully: stop whatever else you’re doing, take a breath or two, call to mind the presence of God, call to mind this desire you have for Christ, for Christ to fulfill you, the desire for happiness and fulfillment that only Christ can give…and then slowly and deliberately pray the Lord’s Prayer. This is a great habit of making the day holy through prayer.

BUT ON TOP OF THAT, I want you, right now, to make a turn in your life. A turn toward God, and a turn away from where you are currently seeking satisfaction. This is the real key! Right now, acknowledge those thing in your life that you consistently do when you are bored or lonely: eating too much, watching Netflix, scrolling through Facebook, mindlessly watching cable news, buying stuff. Right now, think of those things that you are trying to respond to your desire with, renounce their empty promises, and turn toward Christ. And then the next time you are about to go there, consciously and consistently reject that! And instead, turn to God, tell him, “Lord, you are the only one that promises satisfaction! I will wait for you to respond!” And then pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Literally call these lies out and pray!

  • “Lord, I renounce that scrolling through Facebook is going to fix my problems. I choose you, Lord. Our Father, who art in heaven…”
  • “Lord, I renounce that this cookie, or this wine, or this beer in going to comfort me when I’m feeling this pain of loneliness. I choose you, Lord. Our Father…”
  • When you wake up and open your eyes, the first thing you do: do you reach for the phone? or do you say an Our Father? Who is the Lord of your day?
  • When it’s 10:00a.m. and you find yourself scrolling social media on your phone: put your phone down, get on your knees and tell God you want to be consumed with thoughts of him and not thoughts of yourself and others. “Our Father…”
  • At 2:00p.m. when you are dragging and tired and there are 1,000 needs in front of you and you start complaining and grumbling: bow your head and tell God thank you for three things that He has gifted to you that day. “I choose gratitude Lord, I accept what you give. Our Father…”
  • In the evening when you are done (and I mean done) and you want to have that glass of wine to relax you to give you “peace”: tell God you reject it, speak the Lord’s Prayer to him and exclaim, “You are my peace. I want you to satisfy, you to fill me up. I want you in my life. I reject that this wine is enough for me. Our Father…”

Aren’t you tired of the same faults? Aren’t you tired of your spiritual life feeling empty and like it’s just one more box to check off each week? Do something different. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we really believed that God keeps all of his promises? That Augustine’s words aren’t just nice sayings, but are actually true? This is how we wake up from the “blah” we find ourselves in! This is how we stop stuffing ourself full of all of those empty promises the world makes, and begin consciously and actively to exercise this holy desire, this truest desire we have for Christ. We pray, we exercise this desire daily.

THEN—then when we come to Mass each week, when we pray the Our Father before coming forward for communion, to receive him Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist—then everything begins to change. That one true desire we have been expressing all week is given to us in the most miraculous of ways.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s