Persisting in prayer through times of darkness

Doug McManaman
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reproduced with Permission

It's good to be back at St. Justin Martyr; the last time I was here was in 2011. The reason I disappeared is that I came down with a very painful illness. It began on December 23rd, 2011, the last day of school before the Christmas holidays. I started to feel unusually tired and achy, so I left school early. I just went to bed, assuming that I would be ready to go to my in-laws for Christmas. My wife and daughter went on ahead of me, but I was unable to catch up with them because I simply couldn't get out of bed. I had terrible pain in my head and neck, and eventually the pain moved to my legs. All I had the strength to do on Christmas Day was open up a can of tuna. I went to emergency on the 26th, and the emergency doctor was not sure what it was. He thought it might be Polymyalsia Rheumatica, but he couldn't be sure. I was put on Oxycodone and Prednisone, but the pain was still there and quite debilitating. I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to go back to the classroom, and that was a scary thought. But I was also frightened at the thought that this might not go away. It's a scary thing when doctors do not know what's wrong with you, and when a possible diagnosis is a condition for which there is no cure. It was a difficult time, and even my doctor was becoming frustrated at not knowing what to do. No doctor or specialist knew what was wrong with me, and to this day they still do not know what it was.

But what was interesting is that everyone else knew. It was amazing how many people, who had never studied medicine, who'd never spent a day in medical school, knew what was wrong with me: "You're drinking too much Coke Zero"; "It's that protein powder you're drinking"; "It's that low carb diet you are on"; "It's from sitting at the computer all the time"; "It's your bad posture"; etc. Everyone's a doctor except the doctors; the only ones who freely admitted they were stumped were those who had spent their lives studying medicine.

There's a real lesson in this. We make so many unfounded inferences. An inference is always uncertain. It only has either a low, medium, or high probability of being true; they are never certain. I've been studying the theory of knowledge for over 30 years now, and indeed there are truths of which we can be certain, but many of these are very general, very abstract, and although they are certain, they lack precision. Our everyday knowledge is for the most part made up of inferences, and these inferences tend to lack certainty. What is ironic is that most people have it reversed: what we can be genuinely certain of, most people think we can't be certain; and what we cannot be certain of, most people think we can and treat such inferences as certain. For example, we can be certain that God, as First Cause of all that is, exists, is eternal, is supremely good and supremely beautiful, the source of all that is beautiful. We can be certain of basic moral principles and precepts and their application to very obvious issues, such as abortion and sexual morality, etc. Most people today, however, believe that we cannot possess any certainty with regard to these things. But what is genuinely uncertain, such as the cause of an illness, or the quality of this person's character, or the reason this or that person was late or is over-weight, or is not well dressed, or is living below the poverty line, etc., we make inferences and treat them as if they are certain, and we stick to them despite evidence to the contrary.

There is no doubt in my mind that most of what we think we know, is really not knowledge at all, but belief, conjecture, the product of inferencing, the result of seeing the world from a very limited angle. Renowned Physicist Richard Feynman coined the expression that science is an ever expanding frontier of ignorance. The more we discover, the more we realize how little we really know. Human life is an ever expanding frontier of ignorance, and one of the blessings of old age is coming to realize this more fully - at least, it should be something that we come to realize in old age.

And that's why our default position in this life is faith. So much of what we do every day is based on natural faith in the sense of trusting what someone tells you because you have some evidence that the person is informed and is honest - but we don't know for certain, so we trust, we have faith. When we come to appreciate that, we begin to see that a religious existence rooted in supernatural faith is perfectly congruent with human nature.

It is frightening to be sick with something that no medical expert can figure out. I began to fight what appeared to be waves of depression and temptations to despair. The thought that I might have to live with this for the rest of my life was also terrifying because I wasn't sure if I had the strength to endure such a thing.

And then I thought to myself: "So this is what many of the patients I visit go through every day" - as a Deacon, my ministry is to those who suffer from mental illness. I thought: "This is a small taste of what they go through". I began to coach myself to think only of the present moment, to forget about the future and concentrate on this moment now. And when a wave of despair would come over me, I'd pray very hard.

I was on the phone almost every night with my spiritual director, and one night he said to me: "There is nothing to do but say: "Lord, your will be done. Into your hands I commend my spirit. Into your hands I commend my spirit. Do with me as you please." A light went on when he said that, because we pray that prayer every night in the Liturgy of the Hours, but when he said it, I'd realized that this prayer had become just words. So I said: "Yes, of course, I'll do that: 'Into your hands Lord I commend my spirit'", and I prayed those words from the heart all evening.

Well, that night I had the best sleep. I woke up in a spirit of great joy. I was still in a lot of physical pain, but there was a strength and a joy there present that were not there before. And that was the beginning of my recovery. I started to slowly get better. I remember the day I was able to get into the car and go for a drive for the first time in weeks; it was a marvelous experience. It took a couple of months to get weaned off Prednisone, but I was able eventually to return to the classroom. I think my appreciation for what people who suffer from depression and chronic pain have to go through on a daily basis deepened tremendously after that.

We really are frail creatures. We are so vulnerable to destruction; we are entirely dependent on so many things outside of our control. We can't be certain of much in life, but the one thing I am certain of is that independence is an illusion. Our life can be over in a second, it can be radically changed in an instant. We are entirely at the mercy of God's providence.

This life is really about learning to depend on God more completely, more consciously. It is about learning how to pray and about persisting in prayer. In this first reading, Moses prays over a battle. Israel is engaged in a battle with Amalek, and as Moses is praying on the mountain with his arms in the figure of the cross, Israel gains the upper hand. When he gets tired and lets his arms down, the enemy begins to gain the upper hand. And so Aaron and Hur help Moses to persist, to keep his arms up. Of course they don't know this, but Moses is the figure of Christ here. He foreshadows the figure of Christ crucified, whose death on the cross is an eternal prayer, the one prayer that resounds throughout history and defeats the power of the evil one.

This life is all about prayer precisely because we are so weak, frail, and in the dark. The light of the human intellect is very dull and faint. We are children, and we need to be taken by the hand and guided through this life, because our vision is too blurred and too limited.

Our life here is all about faith and prayer, surrendering ourselves to the providence of God, allowing Him to take over our lives and to use us to bring life and light to others. It's all about being a channel of the Lord's mercy, allowing the Lord to touch the lives of others through us. Our task is to pray, to persist in prayer over the battle that is raging for the souls of others, especially the young. In that first reading, Joshua is fighting that battle, and he too is a symbol of Jesus, because the name 'Jesus' is the late form of the Hebrew name Joshua. Jesus is fighting this battle today, and he asks us to pray on the mountain, persistently, within the shadow of the cross, to pray always for others, for the souls of the young, for the people of this world, for the suffering; to pray in the darkness and uncertainty of faith. That's what he asks of us. If we persist, the momentum will shift to our side; the kingdom of darkness will gradually lose the upper hand. But we have to pray persistently, in the darkness and uncertainty of faith, in a spirit of humility, rooted in the Person of Christ.