By Fr Selvam Sahaya
Wherever in the world you are, today, you can have access to emergency services just by ‘dialling’ a few numbers on your telephone. Do you know the emergency number(s) in your own country? In the UK, it is 999; in the European Union it is 112, and in some countries it is 911. In some other countries there are separate numbers to call the police, fire services, or medical assistance. I recently read in the internet that the first emergency number system to be deployed, anywhere in the world, was in London. It was on 30 June 1937 that ‘999’ was first dialled and a special red light flashed on the telephone operator’s table. Thus began the system of emergency services.
How often have you called an emergency number in your life? If ever you called an emergency number, I am sure, it now brings to your mind some traumatic experience. Sorry about that. In any case, I suppose, the emergency number is not the most frequently dialled number on your personal telephone. What is the most dialled number in your phone, anyway? Is it that of your lover, spouse, child, parent, friend, business partner? Perhaps, these days, thanks to the mobile phones you might even call the same person more than two, three times a day! And what does that frequently dialled number say about your own priorities in life?
Now, here is a more important question: how would you describe your own acts of calling on God! Are they emergency calls, or are they frequent calls?
Here is a piece of interesting information from my current field of research. A study among recovering alcoholics revealed that even alcoholics pray! Sometimes, even when they are drunk, they pray. But their prayer is often like calling an emergency number: “God get me out of this mess!” But the research also revealed that prayer takes another form among recovered alcoholics. Their prayer becomes more constant. Their prayer is no more just sporadic God-get-me-out-of-this-mess type of prayer, but a constant: “Father, lead me not into temptation.”
How would you describe your own prayer life? Is it like calling emergency numbers? Or it is a constant relationship?
A parable about the need to pray constantly
In the gospel text of today we have a reminder on making frequent calls to God. Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem – a journey that he began in Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke (Lk 9:51), and is nearly reaching his final destination (which will happen in Lk 19:28). Meanwhile he begins to tell us two stories about prayer. One, (in Lk 18:1-8) about constancy in prayer; and another, (in Lk 18:9-14) about our attitude in prayer. This Sunday we take up the first story, about the woman who went knocking at the door of the agnostic judge. I shall not say anything about the story of the next Sunday; we shall hold it in suspense. But you would not be blamed if you stole a look into your Bible.
Though the woman in the parable of today is seeking the help of the judge because she is in need, we should not lose sight of the context of the story. Luke tells us that Jesus “told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Lk 18:1, RSV). Besides, this story comes after Jesus has been talking about the coming of the Kingdom of God (Lk 17: 20-37). And the story ends with the statement from the mouth of Jesus, “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8). Therefore, the parable is about praying as long as we are on the face of the earth. It is about prayer in our daily life.
In the first reading of today, we have a story of the prolonged hours of prayer by a leader of a nation on behalf of his people. We find Moses with hands lifted up on behalf of the people of Israel (Ex 17:8-13). Even if this story would have had some historical significance for the people of Israel, as a Christian living in the 21st century, I would like to understand it in a symbolic manner. The Amalekites were a nomadic tribe of very fierce people, known in those days for their guerrilla warfare on the neighbouring tribes. They attack the people of Israel on their journey towards the Promised Land. The evil Amalekites prevent the people of Israel from realising the plan of God in their lives. Therefore, Moses decides that Joshua should “march out to engage Amalek” (Ex 17:9). Meanwhile, Moses himself will lead a community (with Aaron and Hur) to the mountain top (Ex 17:10b) to be in union with God. This is not just a political warfare, but a spiritual one. It has to be supported by prayer – by the grace of God.
On our earthly journey, when faced with obstacles, on what type of strength do I rely on? Oh yes, I do pray. Oh yes, I do dial the emergency number? So is prayer just dialling an emergency number? Is God a mere paramedic who turns up at my door to provide me with the first-aid? Is that what I desire most? Do I not want to build a relationship with God? And if it is a relationship, how do I sustain it? Am I able to hold up my hands in prayer throughout the day? That is why, St Paul would urge us to pray “always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father” (Eph 5:20, RSV. See also Col 1:3; Phm 1:4).
The role of community prayer
So how can I manage to pray constantly? How can I keep my hands lifted up in prayer without getting tired? The remarkable detail in the story of Moses, praying on the mountain top, is that he is supported by two people: Aaron and Hur. Interestingly, Aaron was a Levite – a priest! Perhaps we too need the help of the believing community to support us in our continued prayer life.
These days I come across so many groups of people who come together for spiritual exercises. I am talking of the week day Christians. Often these groups are led by lay people, and mostly just supported by priests. There are so many of them to list. Some are so creatively using the modern media: websites, text messages, using the Skype to come together to pray. Even as a priest, I feel overwhelmed these days by the fact that God is working so powerfully in the lives of so many lay people who, as individuals and as groups, hold up their hands in prayer. They create the sacred space in the city. And with this hotline to God, they sustain the world. It may be helpful for us to be part of a group like that.
Or you might just want to keep repeating the whole day a sentence from the Bible or a prayerful invocation. Whatever be the method, to pray continually! We need to! God needs to be the most frequently dialled number in our daily lives.