30 JUNE 2011

I am overjoyed to welcome you here to Armagh this morning – I cannot imagine any occasion more worthy of joyful welcome than at Spiritfest – a festival of the Spirit of God, the Spirit who calls out to the Spirit of each one of us.

As we say, “Lord, teach us to pray,” the response of the Holy Spirit is, “Remember what Jesus said and did.”

I welcome you to Patrick’s City and I gladly and gently recall his famous words, “I used to pray many times during the day – more and more the love of God and reverence for him came to me.  My faith increased and the Spirit was stirred up so that in the course of a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and almost as many at night.”  Not bad progress for a lad admits that a few years previously, “I have neglected the true God…… For we cut ourselves off from God.”  The only Spiritfest the lad Patrick had was in the woods and on the mountains ….. roused up to pray in snow, frost and rain – the Spirit was burning with me.”

I welcome you on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Sacred Heart which is the Symbol of the love of God that same love of God which more and more came to Patrick and inspired him to pray – the same love that inspired each one of you to come here to partake in the Feast of the Spirit.

We gather in St Catherine’s College, long associated with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in this City.  She is the same St Catherine of Siena who was given her own room in the family home for her prayer and meditation and she ranks high among Catholic mystics and writers of all time.

I once heard of the wife of an Irish Ambassador who used to begin her conversation with guests for dinner at the Embassy with the question:  “How is your prayer life?”

I am very glad to welcome all of you to Spiritfest.  The idea and the name comes from a visit by Fr Andrew McNally and Dr Tony Hanna to Australia and New Zealand, in recent years, for a similar event.  It caught their imagination.  It is meant to do likewise for us and be our particular contribution to the preparation for the International Eucharistic Congress of 2012 in Dublin.  

I recently made an appeal for people to return to Sunday Mass.  But I realise that a return to Sunday Mass alone, without a return to prayer, will not avail much.  I am guided in saying this by the words of the Acts of the Apostles about the life of the Infant Christian Community in Jerusalem after the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them at Pentecost.

They were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.  As a result of this faithfulness the Infant Church grew sensationally, they held their possessions in common, they looked after each other’s needs, they lived in peace and security and joy, praising God.  Fundamental to all of that was the faithfulness to prayer.

Prayer is that vital and personal relationship with the living and true God by which we live our faith.

Among all peoples, prayers has always been seen as an essential act.  In some cultures, India, for example, prayer, in the estimation of the public is regarded as the important thing.  This was brought home to me very powerfully I recall when some people, natives of Kerala in South India now living in Ireland, came to Armagh recently to celebrate a Mass in the Ancient Syro-Malabar Rite.  This is a Rite that goes back in language and form to Syria in the second century.  They arrived about 10 am and left about 7 pm.  They had two meals and many talks and lectures and a long liturgy.  They dressed in their traditional costumes – from their own particular land – and began the ceremony with a dance, carried out barefoot around a lighted candle, celebrating the life and deeds and holiness of St Thomas the Apostle, their Apostle.  This was no quick Mass.  The values of us Westerners seem to be different – profit and share-portfolios seem to interest us more than prayer or meditation or contemplation, if a perusal of news bulletins and newspapers are to be any guide.  What is the reason for this?  Is it because we fail to see the links between prayer and actual life?  Too often our quick casual prayer has no real connection with our lives.  It is an empty formula.  It shows no sign that the teaching of Jesus about prayer has influenced or informed our practice of prayer.  It is not enough that we pray in any old way.  Surely it is important that, as Christians, we pray as Christ taught us to pray.

However, the fact is that for a growing number of people prayer is a deep spiritual experience.  It closely informs and gives meaning and hope to their lives at a time when meaning and hope in life are vital.  The son of man learned to pray in his human heart.  He learns to pray for his mother, Mary, – what does that mean?

Jesus was a Jew, one of the Chosen People.  The Chosen People would always study events – what happened, to find their meaning.  For them the event was the point where God intervened in their lives.

So for them, prayer became, above all, thanksgiving for what had happened.  They were constantly thanking God for treating them, His people, with generosity, mercy and faithfulness – especially faithfulness – They knew from experience God was always faithful, never failing, day after day, down through the course of history.

That does not mean that their prayer was always serene.  Every page of the psalms, the great prayer-book of the Jewish people, is littered with petitions and frantic requests.  A great confidence in God is to be found there.  Sometimes God is thanked even before the prayer is granted.  Even when the prayer is not answered in the way expected, the conversation is never interrupted.  They see that it is always possible that God is leading His own Chosen People by the unexpected route of trial and tribulation, even closer to himself with a deeper relationship.  That is what prayer is – a relationship.

From the point of view of the Jews God’s plan may be foiled, at least apparently foiled.  But people of prayer never quit.  They do not give in to despair, rather they try to understand the ways of God and put their trust in God.  

Basically Jewish prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving to a good and generous God who is ever faithful and merciful, who reveals His love in the events of history.

The Gospels show us the place of prayer in the life of Jesus.  They don’t often reveal what was said in that prayer.  It was generally short and usually it is a response to some event concerning the coming of the Kingdom, e.g., in Chapter 17 of St John’s Gospel, his prayer is concerned with His death on the Cross.  A couple of things follow from all of this.  Our prayer should reproduce the prayer of Christ.  St Paul says:  “Pray constantly, and for all things give thanks to God.  Because this is what God expects you to do in Christ Jesus.”

Remember we always pray as members of the Body of Christ – the Church.  For we are a chosen race, a priestly people, powerful with our intercession, linked to the constant chorus of praise that goes up, like incense, to the Heavenly Throne.  By Baptism we are assumed into the priestly assembly of adopted children.  Each one of us has our part to play in building and renewing the Kingdom.  Baptism enables us to see God’s power, in the most unlikely of places, in death for example, in every event that shows the tragic frailty of human life, Jesus’ death was the major event in the history of the saving of the world.  When He prays, Jesus gives thanks.  At the tomb of Lazarus he says: “I thank you for hearing my prayer.  I know indeed that you always hear me.”  Whatever He has, Jesus attributes it to the Father.  God’s generosity is totally free.  All is included in God’s plan, even death, all has meaning.

His thanksgiving moulds his life into a unity.  It is obedience, even unto death on the Cross to the will of the Father for love of all of us.  Yes, His death was a moment of sadness, as every death is, but His loving obedience made it the greatest moment which saved the world.

My hope is that as a result we will all grow in our confidence and willingness to become teachers of prayer.  I hope we will have the courage to challenge people to rediscover our thirst for God – the courage to ponder the words of Jeremiah, “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”  But as the life of Patrick on Slemish shows, the journey of forsaking God can be addressed and reversed through prayer.