Persistence and Prayer

Homily for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Lk 11:11)

One of my favorite children’s stories is Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss.  It’s a magnificent illustration of persistence.  There is a little, joyful guy called Sam I Am.  He wants to share his green eggs and ham with a larger, grumpier figure I call the Grinch.  He keeps trying different ways to get the Grinch to eat the green eggs and ham.  “Would you eat them with a mouse, would you eat them in a house?”  The Grinch adamantly refuses, “I will not eat them here or there.  I will not eat them anywhere!  I do not like green eggs and ham.  I do not like them Sam I Am.”  In a climactic scene at the end, the goat, boat, plane, train, and all of the other characters fall into a river. The Grinch finally succumbs. “I will try them you will see.  I will try them. Just let me be!” The persistence of Sam I Am paid off.  Not only did the grinch eat the green eggs and ham, but he also loved them. 

Persistence is a virtue.  Like any virtue, it requires practice.  When we practice persistence, we attract several other virtues.  We learn patience.  We become more dependable.  We gain endurance. 

Persistence is the antidote to discouragement.  If you’re sad or depressed, persist in pursuing healthy routines.  If things don’t go your way, persist in finding alternatives.  If life seems impossible, persist and focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.     

Saint Ignatian says that if you’re experiencing spiritual desolation, and your heart is heavy and your prayer is dry, persist.  Persist in praying all the same prayers you prayed before, and add some more.   

There is a special kind of persistence – persistence in prayer.  It has some important differences.  When Jesus says to be persistent in prayer, we wrongly think it means that if we ask God enough times he will do what we want.  Like Sam I Am, we think that the point of being persistent in prayer is to change God’s mind.  When parts of our lives are broken, we propose different ways God can fix them.  Will you fix them on a train? Will you fix them on a plane?  Will you fix it here or there?  Will you fix them anywhere?

And when things don’t change, we get discouraged.

A memorable passage in Genesis illustrates two of the differences between general persistence and persistence in prayer.. The Lord hears about the wickedness in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 18:20-32).  Abraham asks whether the Lord will destroy the cities if there are fifty innocent people. The Lord replies, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”  Abraham persists, asking the same question again and again, with 45 instead of 50, then 40, and continues all the way down to ten.  It’s a tedious but captivating exchange. In the end, the Lord says, “For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it.”   

The first difference is this.  Abraham’s persistence was not intended to change God’s mind, but to know God’s mind.  Through this repetitive questioning, Abraham learned how much God values the innocent.  Through this persistent questioning, Abraham learned the depths of God’s mercy, a mercy so great that God would spare two cities filled with wicked people if there were only ten innocent people living among them! 

The second, God did not weary of these questions.  God does not weary of us coming to him with the same appeal ten, a hundred, or even a thousand times.  Unlike us. When someone continues to pester us with the same question, our tendency would be at some point to echo the Grinch, “Let me be!” But God is not like us (thankfully so) and actually delights in our persistence, knowing well that it is through this persistence we learn more about God’s plan in our lives. By practicing the virtue of persistence in prayer, we also grow in the other virtues of patience, discernment, and faithfulness.

Sam I Am illustrates admirable persistence by constantly presenting the green eggs and ham to the Grinch in multiple ways.  If the story were illustrating persistence in prayer, Sam I Am would continue to approach time and time again, but with empty hands and a heart open to the many menu items God may offer.