(See the readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 19)
The Twelve arrive back after having been sent out on the mission. When they arrive Jesus invites them to go with him to a “deserted place.” The time will be spent in prayer with Jesus. The plan is interrupted when the crowds keep following Jesus. He is moved with pity for them “for they were like sheep without a shepherd” so he begins to teach them.
Jesus is the shepherd of the flock. As shepherd, Jesus fulfills the promise the Lord spoke through Jeremiah: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock … and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply.” Jesus is the shepherd who, in the words of the psalmist, leads the flock to restful waters and refreshes the soul.
Jesus is the Shepherd. Shepherds gather the sheep, lead them to pasture, watch over the sheep and ensure their safety. In the fourth Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the shepherd when he says: “I am the Good Shepherd. I know mine and mine know me” (John 10:14). He uses the image of the shepherd to describe a relationship. He says that when a shepherd comes at night to the pen, after being let in by the gatekeeper, he speaks to the flock. When he does this “the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:2).
The image is powerful. It is dark so the sheep cannot see but they know the shepherd so well that when they hear his voice they follow. How do they know his voice? They recognize the voice because he is regularly with them and interacts with them. The image points to a relationship, a deep and long-standing relationship.
Jesus is the Shepherd, we are the sheep. In order to be led by the Jesus we need to know his voice. We need to listen to his call and then be willing to follow where he leads. This all hinges on spending time to know the Lord who is always present in our lives, always available. We do this through prayer.
There are many different types of prayer and styles as well. At the heart of any prayer is an interaction. Speaking with and listening to the Lord. I came across a story recently that might help illustrate this notion.
The new parish priest was called to visit an older parishioner who was sick and nearing death. He arrived at the man’s home and was told to go upstairs to his room. When he entered the room the man was in bed. There was a chair right next to the bed so the priest said: “I guess you were expecting me.” “No,” came the reply, “who are you?” “I’m the new priest, I saw the chair and thought it was for me.” “Father, if you don’t mind please close the door and then have a seat.” The priest did so.
The man then began to speak about the chair. “I’ve never told anyone about this, Father, I think they might think I’m disturbed.” “About what?” asked the priest. “Well I had often heard talks about the importance of prayer. I tried to pray for a long time but nothing seemed to work so I gave up. Then a few years ago I was speaking to one of my friends about this and he said: ‘Prayer is a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. Here’s what I suggest. Sit down on a chair, place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith see Jesus in the chair. It’s not spooky because he promised ‘I’ll be with you always.’ Then just speak to him and listen in the same way you’re doing with me right now.’ So I tried it just as my friend had told me and I liked it. Now I spend a couple of hours every day in prayer. I’m careful though, if my daughter saw me speaking to an empty chair she might put me away.”
The story highlights a simple way to begin a life of prayer. Spending just a few minutes a day in conversation with the Lord will help us to “hear his voice” and to recognize the one who calls and gives us life. This is a great starting point from which to build a deep relationship of love.
After the disciples had returned from the mission, Jesus told them to come away with him to that “deserted place.” That “deserted place” is a place of prayer. He invites us to the same place. It is the place where we encounter our Lord and Shepherd, we hear his voice and we know his love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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