Jesus and the Woman of Canaan. Michael Angelo Immenraet painting. Public domain

Remain in the Battle

Seeking intimacy with God when prayer seems to bear no fruit

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Deacon Joseph MichalakThe Catechism calls it “the battle of prayer.” The saints and spiritual masters — scriptural, classical, contemporary — all recognize it. All have experienced it; none are exempt from it.

Jesus himself teaches it: Prayer is a battle. And it is not simply a battle against our own odd notions of prayer, our distracted minds, our laxness and divided loves, even our own interior poverty. No, the battle becomes most intense in those days and seasons and even years of prayer that seem, to our limited sensibilities, to bear no fruit.

How often we’ve heard others lament, or we ourselves have complained, “I get no answer.” Despite our perseverance and our discipline, there seems to be nothing but silence, or even a sense that we displease him: “Why have you abandoned me?” The temptation is acute. We want to give up.

And so Jesus’ divinely appointed encounter with the Canaanite woman is for our benefit. It is the story of the soul in the battle of prayer. Jesus, who had declared his mission was first to the children of the Covenant, but who had just been rejected by those children, was, in fact, moving outward to the land of the gentiles — to the nations outside the Covenant. And here is a woman outside the Covenant coming out from her land, fleeing the emptiness of her life. She does not know Jesus; she has little notion of him. But in desperation, she recognizes him as a last hope for healing — to begin with, “for her daughter,” mystically understood as some aspect of her life in need of improvement, some temptation or failure or sin or burden of which she seeks to be relieved.

Three times she addresses Jesus as “Lord.” Three times he responds (in the Greek) with a negative: “did not say a word,” “not sent but to the lost of Israel,” “not right to take food of the children and throw it to dogs.” Silence. Attention seemingly elsewhere. Apparent outright rejection. This is the battle.

And here is the remarkable thing: The woman receives it all without objection. She perseveres in voicing her desire, she acknowledges her poverty, she even cleverly agrees with Jesus’ assessment. In the midst of the exchange, she “does him homage” — that is, lowers herself in a posture of worship, and lays bare her heart. No longer is she even petitioning “for her daughter”; she simply begs “help me.” And she now recognizes that a simple scrap from the Eucharistic table suffices.

First, the dry silence, when desire is for him and consolation is not sought elsewhere, but all consolation and answer is absent in prayer: Might this not be the “dark night of the senses”? “I sought him but I did not find him” (Sg 3:1). Then, having persevered and stayed the course in prayer, but with seemingly outright rejection: might this not be the “dark night of the spirit”? Finally, having received even this rejection, “How beautiful you are, my friend, / how beautiful!” (Sg 1:15). “In his shadow I delight to sit, / and his fruit is sweet to my taste” (Song 2:3).

The cauldron of prayer has been fruitful. Jesus has taken this soul he has loved from all eternity; he has purified her desires, her longing for consolations other than him. He has loved her in the intimacy of his cross and readied this bride for union. And so he declares, “O Woman, thy will be done!”

Only five times in all the Gospels does the Greek word “O” appear, and all are on the lips of Jesus. Three of those times he is castigating in a form of “O faithless and perverse generation.” Once he is gently rebuking: “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” (Lk 24:25). Only once does he approve with admiration: “O Woman! Great is your faith.” (Mt 15:28). It is the “O” of a kiss, which appears in the Song of Songs in some translations, “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!” (1:2).

If there is one “rule” for the battle of prayer (and I am not a fan of techniques, rules and “styles” in prayer), all are agreed it is this: Stay. Remain. Do not give up. Persevere. Do it. Do it again. Do it again. Intimacy is here.

DEACON JOSEPH MICHALAK is the director of the Institute for Diaconate Formation at St. Paul Seminary, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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