17th Sunday in Ordinary time

I used to spend most of my summer holidays in the Polish Tatra Mountains, walking and climbing along well marked routes. Going off the track was restricted by the rules of the National Park, and in fact by the character of the mountains. Straying of these routes was suicidal, unless I could fly or was a well-equipped and experienced rock climber. So, walking in the Polish Tatra Mountains can be exhausting because of their steepness and altitude, but relatively easy with regards to navigational skills. Actually many tourists use their maps only to decide which coloured track to choose, then the map lands on the bottom of their rucksacks, and they follow colour markings along the route.

It’s a completely different story in the Scottish Hills. Except for some low-level leisure walks most of the serious hills have no marked trails. Many of them don’t have well-established paths, or they lead to nowhere near the summits. Generally speaking in order to climb many hills walkers have to negotiate their way using a compass and maps. That requires additional skills and making their own decisions. I was lucky to learn those skills as a scout centuries ago, and since then they have seemed to me as natural as using cutlery. So I’ve been surprised in recent months to come across few people who would like to do hill-walking, but wouldn’t risk getting lost as they could neither read the maps nor use the compass.

Today’s main theme of the readings is prayer. We can see Abraham haggling with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We can see Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. There are some misconceptions about prayer, leading to pointless forms of it or to abandoning prayer completely. Let me recall briefly two false ideas. For some people prayer is an activity for its own sake, usually done out of duty. Those of us who are older were taught as kids that we have pray every morning and every night, and that neglecting these prayers is a sin and displeases God. Consequently people recite their rhymes as quickly as possible in order to have the obligations done, and to move to more reasonable activities. Adults abandon this kind of prayer perceiving it rightly as childish. For some other people prayer is a shopping list, presented to God with expectations that all items will be delivered as soon as possible. This attitude by definition leads to disappointments as seemingly God rarely responds in the way they expect. Achieving little or nothing they eventually choose their own abilities rather than prayer in order to gain something. Rightly so.

At the end of his lecture on prayer in today’s gospel Jesus says something a bit surprising; let me recall it: ‘how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ The objective of prayer is the Holy Spirit rather than more or less earthly goods like financial prosperity or happiness. We were created as mindful, reasonable creatures with ability to make our own decisions. God doesn’t expect us to abandon those gifts of mind and will power, but to engage them in creating, shaping and modelling our own lives and the lives of others. Our main problem is that our lives are like a never-ending multiple choice test, but with much more serious consequences. Sometimes it’s not easy to make the right decisions; sometimes it’s difficult to predict long-term results of these decisions. Life can be like the Scottish Hills: sometimes featureless and hard to navigate through; sometimes with seemingly impassable obstacles; sometimes our judgment can be clouded by anger, sadness or infatuation. For me prayer is the way of assessing my current situation in the light of the Holy Spirit in order to make right decisions, to negotiate my way through life without hurting myself and hurting others. And not just that. My prayer pushes me to help others to find their own way through their lives.