The Divine Need

Doug McManaman
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reproduced with Permission

These are beautiful readings, and they are all about the divine mercy. What is particularly striking about the First Reading from Exodus is that after Moses intercedes for Israel, the Lord "changes his mind", he relents and has mercy. I think there's a very important theological truth revealed here, and it's this: God has given us a power, and it is the power to cause the Lord, through our intercession, to relent and to have mercy. That is a lot of power. I believe a lot of us fail to pray for others as often as we should because deep down we might feel that it really makes no difference. Many of us feel that our vote at election time has very little effect, so how can a simple and silent prayer change anything? And yet, Moses was able to change the divine justice to the divine mercy. It was God who freely gave Him this power.

The more we pray for others, the more we intercede for them in a spirit of real faith, the more miracles we are going to see. I used to show my students the movie on Mother Teresa produced by the Petrie sisters (1986). During the production of that film, two miracles took place as a result of the decision of the Missionary Sisters of Charity to pray for a specific intention. The one that struck me most was in Lebanon; Beirut was being shelled by Israel. Bombs were exploding everywhere, some priests had been killed in the streets, but Mother Teresa insisted on going into the city to rescue a number of children trapped in a hospital building. I may have some of my details wrong - it has been a while since I've seen it - , but they simply wouldn't let her in because it was too dangerous. She was arguing with the U.S Ambassador and other members of state. She wouldn't give up, and at one point they were actually laughing at her naiveté. So the Ambassador to the region finally told her that she simply cannot go in unless there is a ceasefire, and it's going to be a long time before we are going to see a ceasefire, at least according to the way things are going. Mother Teresa said no, that is not true, there's going to be a ceasefire Thursday. I've asked Our Lady to bring about a ceasefire on Thursday, which is her feast day, or words to that effect. The reply was that if there is a ceasefire, I will personally take you there myself. And then there is a camera shot of the city on Thursday, and it is completely silent. And then we hear the some of the men who were previously laughing say that we need to take advantage of the ceasefire, and the Ambassador had to keep his promise, and they rescued quite a few malnourished children trapped in a hospital that was damaged by the shelling.

If only we really knew the power of our prayers.

But there is something else to these readings. In the gospel, Jesus says that there is great rejoicing among the angels in heaven over one repentant sinner. It's as if a great hunger has been satisfied in the angels as a result of that conversion.

With regard to the parable of the prodigal son, we could ask: Why did the father see his son in the distance? We have the image of a father looking out into the distance, as if he is waiting in longing for the return of his son, and he is overjoyed to finally catch a glimpse of him, and so he runs out to meet him. It's as if there is a great emptiness in the heart of the father, and so he experiences unimaginable joy at the return of his son. The son is satisfying a great need in the father, and that is the need to love his son. That's what love does; it freely chooses to need the other.

Now, when someone would ask the question, "Why do we have to worship God if God doesn't need us to worship Him", the traditional answer we were always given was that it is not God who needs our worship, but we need to worship Him. And that's true; our greatest need is to worship God. But I am convinced that this is only half the story. I would argue that it is theologically sound to say that God really does need you. Of course, God is perfect, and He has no need of anyone or anything to complete him. But I think we can speak of a divine need that is consistent with the divine perfection, and that is the need that love brings about. If I freely choose to love another, I freely choose to create a need within myself for that person. That's the nature of love. You and I really can please God; He has allowed us that ability because He loves us, and He is pleased when we choose to love Him back.

I remember once listening to a patient tell me why he does not go to Mass, and he would say things like "I pray on my own, I pray at home, and I feel that's good enough for me." He was very sincere, he wasn't arrogant or curt. But then the thought occurred to me; I said: "Imagine a husband saying that to his wife: 'We communicate, I talk to you, we have good conversations, that's good enough for me'; yet she wants something more, she wants to give her body to him in marital union, to give her entire self. But his response is "we communicate, we talk, isn't that good enough?" And so I found myself suggesting to him: "Maybe it's like that, maybe the Lord needs you. You say it is good enough to pray at home, and I'm not disputing that, but maybe the Lord is like that woman who says 'Yes, but I want to give you more, I want to give you my entire body in marital union. In other words, maybe it is more true to say that you ought to go to Mass because the Lord needs you. He loves you so much that he has freely established a need for your love. He longs to dwell within you physically, which is why He makes Himself really and truly present in the Eucharist. That's how much you and I matter to God; we matter so much that he loves each one of us as if there is only one of us to love, as Catherine of Siena once said'".

That seemed to have struck a chord with him, and then I got thinking more and more about that notion of a divine need that is consistent with God's perfection. I then realized that if we look at the hierarchy of being, we see that the higher and more perfect the being, the greater the need. What does a brick wall need? Not much, but a flower needs more than a brick wall; it needs water and sunlight. But an animal, which is a higher and more perfect being than a plant, has greater needs than a flower. But a human being has greater needs than a horse or a dog; a human person needs to love and be loved; that's our most fundamental human need. A horse does not need to be loved like a baby needs to be loved. And an angel is superior in perfection to a human being; it does not need food and water, and angel is a pure spirit. But, as this gospel reveals, there is more rejoicing in the repentance and return of one sinner than there is for the ninety nine who have no need of repentance. We might rejoice at the news of a conversion, but our rejoicing is rarely if ever of the same intensity that Christ says is in the angels, in this gospel. It's as if the angels have a much greater hunger, and because that greater hunger is satisfied, there is a greater rejoicing. They have a greater need, which is why they are superior to man. But in God, there is an inconceivably greater need, but it is a need that is consistent with His perfection. He loves you and me, individually, so much that we can actually say that He needs you to love Him. He has given us that power, the power to please Him, and as we see in the first reading, the power to move Him to change his mind, so to speak.

There is no doubt these are dangerous thoughts, because they can be easily misinterpreted. But when we interpret them correctly, it is really an astounding thing to think about. Human beings need to matter; the one thing that makes life unbearable is human indifference. When the people around us couldn't care less whether we continue to live or die, when the people around us have absolutely no need of us, we just want to die. That's the central problem with this world; it is a dark world, because it is filled with indifference. But the One Being Who alone matters, Who is eternal and perfect, we matter to Him. Each one of us matters to Him so much that He loves you to the point of needing you. And the purpose of prayer and the spiritual life is to gradually come to know that love from within, to experience it, to experience our loveableness. The more we grow in that awareness, the less anxiety there is going to be in our lives, the less fear, and when there is less fear, there is less anger.

At every moment of our existence, we have God's undivided attention: it is completely and totally focused on you individually - and God cannot be divided, his attention is not limited by sense perception and time. And that attention that He gives us at every instant of our existence is like the attention of a loving mother for her baby, or a father whose gaze is fixed on the return of his son. This short life is all about coming to know that love He has for you, a love that sees past your sins and failings, a love that fills us with a real supernatural joy, and that joy is a foretaste, a tiny sample of the joy in store for us for eternity, if we choose to die in that love.