This Sunday’s readings speak to us of the power of persistent prayer. The first reading (Exodus 17:8-13) in particular depicts prayer quite powerfully. In it, we can discern six fundamental teachings on prayer.
I. The Problem for Prayer - In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. None of us like problems, but one good thing about them is that they help to keep us praying. Israel was at war and her enemies were strong; it was time to pray.
The Gospel concerns a widow who is troubled about something, and this problem keeps her coming back to the judge. Sometimes God allows us to have problems in order to keep us praying. Problems also keep us humble and remind us of our need for God and others.
Problems aren’t the only reason we pray, but they are one important motivator. It shouldn’t be necessary for us to have problems, but they certainly have a way of summoning us to prayer.
II. The Priority of Prayer - Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.
Notice that Joshua and the army did not go forth until after Moses took up his position of prayer. Prayer ought to precede any major decision or action.
We often rush into things without praying. We should begin each day with prayer. Important decisions should also elicit prayer from us. Prayer needs to come first; it has priority.
Too many people use prayer as a kind of rear-guard action through which they ask God to clean up the mess they’ve made. We end up doing a lot of things we shouldn’t because we didn’t pray first. We also end up doing a lot of things poorly that prayer might have clarified or enriched.
Prayer isn’t just about asking for this or that specific thing. It involves an ongoing relationship with God, through which we gradually receive a new mind and heart, and our vision and priorities are clarified and purified. The new mind and heart that we receive through prayer and the study of our faith are an essential part of the prayer that precedes decisions and actions.
III. The Power of Prayer - As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.
As long as Moses prayed, Israel got the better of the battle, but when fatigue caused his prayer to diminish, Israel began to lose.
Prayer changes things. Here in this world, we may never fully know how our prayers helped to change history, but I am sure that one of the joys of Heaven will be to see what a difference our prayers—even the distracted and poor ones—made. In Heaven, we’ll tell stories of prayer’s power and will be able to appreciate the difference it made for us and for others. For now, much of this is hidden from our eyes, but one day, we’ll see with a glorious vision what prayer accomplished.
I suppose, too, that one of the pains of purgatory might be seeing the negative effects of our failure to pray and realizing that it was only God’s mercy that counteracted our laziness.
In this passage, Moses struggles to pray—so do we. Remembering prayer’s power is an important motivator to keep us on our knees and at our beads.
IV. The Partnership of Prayer - Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other.
Moses knew that because of his fatigue he needed the assistance of Aaron and Hur. They all prayed together and, once again, Israel was strengthened and regained the upper hand.
Prayer is not supposed to be merely a solitary experience. While personal prayer is important, so is communal and group prayer. The Lord said, Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20). He also said, Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven (Matt 18:19).
We are taught to gather in prayer liturgically and also to find partners for prayer. Because prayer is so essential and we are individually so weak, we ought not to have it all depend on us. We need our own Aaron and Hur to support us in prayer and to help make up for our weakness.
Do you have some friends who help you, not only to pray but also to walk uprightly? Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up. … where a lone man may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:10,12).
Do not pray or journey alone. Find some spiritual friends to accompany you.
V. The Persistence of Prayer - so that [Moses] hands remained steady till sunset.
With Aaron and Hur to help him, Moses prayed right through until sunset. They prayed right up to the end—so must we. There is a mystery as to why God sometimes makes us wait, but we must continue to pray anyway. We may get frustrated, fatigued, or disheartened by the delay, but we must pray on. Like Moses, we should get friends to help us, be we must not stop praying.
Be like the woman in the Gospel, who just kept returning to that judge until he rendered justice for her. I have brought people back into the Church long after the spouse or parent who prayed for them died.
VI. The Product of Prayer - And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.
The text says that the enemies of Israel were utterly defeated. This shows the powerful result of persistent prayer.
We may not fully see the results of our prayer on this side of the veil, but on glory’s side we one day will. We may not need God to mow down a foreign enemy for us, but how about enemies like fear, poverty, illness, and sin? Yes, we have enemies, and God answers prayers. Pray and then wait patiently for the product of prayer.
There you have it, six practices and teachings on prayer.