“But he doesn’t talk back!” The prisoner looked at me with desperation as he tried to explain why he didn’t bother praying any more. I had been working as a chaplain in HMP Liverpool for two years by now. I had come across every conceivable crime, every type of confession, every practical need but this admission was by far the most difficult I had to deal with. Mark (not his real name) was an addict and desperately trying to break his addiction. But he was in the segregation unit for fighting…again. The reason? Drugs. He needed them and someone had let him down.
We were in the middle of a deep and meaningful conversation about his addiction, his past, his short temper and, most surprisingly, about God. He had been attending my meetings in the chapel (I had later discovered why the foil wrappers of the Kit-Kat bars had been mysteriously disappearing from the bin) and he had always engaged in great discussions about God. On this occasion, I was speaking to Mark about how to pray when he came out with this gem: “But he doesn’t answer me!”
And Mark might echo our experience of God at times. It can seem like it’s all one way traffic…we do all the talking! We read the Bible. We say the rosary. We go to Mass. And in our time of prayer we may stop talking. And we wait. Nothing. No voices. No revelation. Just quiet.
The gospel that was read at Mass yesterday has been, for me, a great way of understanding both how God is with us in life but also how God is with us in prayer. It is the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the reported sightings of the risen Jesus. You can read it here:
The two disciples are on the road and are talking about the reported sightings of Jesus. But they are perplexed and confused. As they are discussing this among themselves, a stranger starts to walk alongside them. The account tells us that it was the risen Jesus, but the two men did not recognise him. So Jesus plays dumb and pretends to not know what has been happening in relation to himself. So the men tell him.
Let’s stop at this part of the story. When the men talk to this stranger, they pour their hearts out to him. They describe their predicament, their disappointment, their dashed hopes and their utter confusion at what has been happening in their lives. Why did Mark find it hard to hear God “speaking” to him in prayer? Because Mark was not being honest in his prayer. He was not telling God how he really felt and what he really thought. He was pretending, he was using nice language and was telling God what he thought God wanted to hear. And he was pretending to be someone he was not. He would not admit his addiction to God. He could not admit he was powerless over it. He prayed the Our Father and the Hail Mary because that is what he thought he should pray.
When was the last time we were truly honest in our prayer? Do we say what we need to say or do we simply say what we think we should say? Do we express our darkest selves to God? Our most contemptible feelings, our addictions, our rage, our desperation? Do we put on a pious display before God when it is really a sham? In this gospel, the disciples tell everything to Jesus and he does not interrupt them. He walks alongside them and listens to every word they have to say! He doesn’t interrupt with “No, you should not say that” or “How can you believe that?” He listens intently.
Back to the gospel. When they have finished, Jesus begins to talk to them. And what is the first thing he does? He gives them a good slagging!! He calls them foolish (The Message translation says “thick-headed”!!!) and calls them “slow-hearted.” In other words, Jesus is being real with them and telling them like it is. He is pointing out to them that everything they experienced was completely soaked and saturated with God’s presence but they just couldn’t see it. There was nothing that happened in their lives when following Jesus that was not mean to happen. It was all part of a greater purpose. And Jesus brings them back into the past to help them understand the present. And as the two disciples admitted later, their hearts burned within them because they knew what this stranger was saying was true.
In the segregation unit that day, I had to tell Mark that God wanted to talk back to him but not in the way he expected. If Mark had been on the road with Jesus to Emmaus that day and Jesus said to him, “Well Mark, when we look at your past life…” Mark would have stopped Jesus short and said “No, we aren’t going there.” God couldn’t get a word in because Mark was too busy trying to forget the past – he was filling his present with so much so that he would not have to stop and think about his past. God’s way of speaking is not always in audible words (it can be) but in our experiences.
St. Ignatius of Loyola (see also the blog entry “Living with purpose #3: Where did that day go?”) created a prayer for the end of the day called the Examen. He actually said to his brothers that this prayer should never be missed. Ignatius believed that, in our daily lives, God was to be found in our emotions, the movements of our hearts, the moods that we experienced, the people we met and the conversations we had with others. In this prayer, we walk with Jesus through our day and allow him to speak to us through all of these things. We sense God’s presence in the gratitude we have for what happened in our day and we can also sense how we held God at a distance in our decisions and actions of that day. In other words, when we pray and we allow God to walk beside us (God may feel like a stranger at first), God’s answer is often to bring us back through the past (in this case a day) to help us understand his presence in the present.
We often wish that God would make his presence known NOW. In the same way, why did Jesus not just let the disciples see him as Jesus when he first joined them on the road? Why did he have them go through their whole story from start to finish only to then lecture them on the past before finally revealing himself to them when they got to the village? Because he was leading them to an experience that would help them understand how he ultimately speaks to them and, as it turns out, hardly any words were needed.
So back to the gospel one last time. They arrive at the village, he pretends to go on further but they persuade him to come in with them. And he sits with them, takes the bread, blesses it and gives it to them. And suddenly he is gone. But the disciples know exactly who it was. They recognised him when he broke the bread. Why didn’t he say anything to them when he had broken the bread? He didn’t need to – everything that needed to be said was in their hands; the broken bread. He had said it all before and didn’t need to say it again; “This is my body.” In other words, the bread in their hands was his presence with them even when he had disappeared from their sight. And they realised they had made the same mistake all over again; just as they hadn’t recognised God at work in the crazy events that had been happening to them in following Jesus, they hadn’t recognised the sign that God had been speaking to them on the road – their hearts had been burning in them. It was something they had felt.
My discussion with Mark was cut short by the alarm going off in the prison signalling another fight. He left the prison the next day and I never got to seem him again.
What would I say to him now? I would say “Mark, God has spoken to you and still does speak to you. You need to look at the long road that your life has taken and ask God to walk with you on that road and show you what you need to know for today. Tell God honestly how you feel and I promise that, over time, God will reveal to you through your feelings and your experiences what God was trying to say. And, by the way, every Sunday when you came to the chapel, Jesus was speaking to you through the broken bread you received in your hand; he was saying, ‘I know you are broken but I was broken for you. I can make you whole again.’ Please trust in him.”
And to you? The road of life can feel long but, with company, the journey can seem more bearable. Like the men on the road to Emmaus, allow Christ to walk alongside you and accompany you through life. Yes, he may feel like a stranger for a little while. But take time every evening to look back on your day with him – listen to your heart, notice what you are grateful for, admit to God those movements of mood and temperament that led you to distance yourself from others and God so as to, rather than feel shame or guilt, allow God to transform those moments into possibilities for tomorrow. Then Christ will become more familiar. And if you have not been to Eucharist in some time – maybe go back when these restrictions are over and allow the communion you receive bring the healing you need. It is not called “food for the journey” for nothing.