The Deacon's Bench

If there is one recurring theme in this Sunday’s readings, it is persistence.

Whether it’s Moses, or St. Paul, or the relentless widow in the parable, it’s all about never giving up. Holding fast. Refusing to grow weary. Living what you believe. St. Paul’s advice is both wise and clear: “Be persistent — whether it is convenient or inconvenient.”

If you want good example of that, you can find one at the racetrack – or right down Queens Boulevard, at the Midway movie theater.

Last weekend, we went to see “Secretariat,” the new Disney movie about the legendary race horse. The movie captures a compelling piece of sports history, helping to show what made this four-legged athlete so extraordinary. It’s easy to see why Secretariat made the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated all in the same week. He became the first horse in a generation to win the Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. His energy and stamina were historic.

It was so historic, back in 1973, most of the five thousand winning bets at the Belmont were never claimed. People kept the tickets as souvenirs.

The movie captures the drama and determination that led the horse’s owner, Penny Tweedy, to turn down millions to keep Secretariat, under incredible pressure, and to keep him racing. That in itself is a lesson in persistence. But there’s something else — an interesting biological detail that the movie doesn’t go into and, in fact, it wasn’t discovered until after Secretariat’s death in 1989.

It helps to explain his remarkable stamina. An autopsy revealed that Secretariat’s heart weighed an incredible 22 pounds — two and a half times larger than the average heart of a horse. It was attributed to a quirk in genetics. But the result gave him the strength and endurance to prevail over long distances – to keep going, and going, and going, no matter what.

No matter what the conditions on the track, or the competition in the field, Secretariat never gave up or gave in.

St. Paul might consider him the very definition of being persistent – whether it was convenient or inconvenient.

And it all came down to his heart.

You might say the same thing about living a life of prayer.

To be a prayerful person requires more than just discipline or a sense of devotion. It’s more than just following a routine. That’s a good beginning. But a rich and rewarding life of prayer – one spent in frequent conversation with God – demands something more.
It also demands a resilient and generous heart. Not so much physically — but spiritually.
It requires a heart that doesn’t give up. One that can withstand weariness, and discouragement. A heart that can endure disappointment, and prayers that seem to go unanswered, and hardships that sometimes can be difficult to bear.

But that heart, that spirit, will not be discouraged. It is full of faith. And it will return to God, again and again, in gratitude and in hope, persistent in prayer.

Whether it is convenient or inconvenient.

When a man is ordained a priest or deacon, he makes a promise at his ordination to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every morning and evening. It’s not always an easy promise to keep. Shortly before my ordination, Bishop Caggiano told our class to make that faithful prayer a priority. As he told us, candidly, “Whenever I’ve let my prayer life slip, my life goes off track.” I know exactly what he means. And my wife never lets me forget it. She keeps a saying on our refrigerator at home: “A life stitched together in prayer never unravels.” That about says it.

But prayer is more than a routine, more than reading the psalms or fingering the rosary. Every moment of every day can be a prayer. Life can and should be an ongoing conversation with our creator.

Work can be an offertory. A subway ride can be a psalm. A family meal can begin with grace – and become a prayer of thanksgiving. Find those moments we take for granted and sanctify them. Seek out God’s grace in the ordinary and every day and give them back to Him as a prayer.

You won’t find a better example of that than what we are doing right here and now, the greatest prayer in the world: the mass. If you want to find “grace in the ordinary,” look at what we have here. Crumbs of bread and cups of wine will become Jesus Christ. A simple meal will be transformed.

And so, of course, will we.

Prayer is about transformation, as well – taking words, actions, thoughts and transcending the ordinary, to approach the Divine.

And it all begins, I think, here. In the heart.

So pray not only for God’s grace. Pray not only for His mercy or blessings.

But let us pray, as well, for a large and generous heart.

Pray for a “Secretariat”-sized heart. Pray for a heart that will only grow and expand and be open to all the wonder and joy that God is waiting to offer. Pray for a heart that will be able to share that with others – to proclaim the word, as Paul puts it, when it’s convenient or inconvenient.

If we do that, we cannot help but grow in our persistence, and our stamina, and our faith.

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