One day while they were offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, “I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.” So it was that after fasting and prayer they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
Acts 12: 2-3
For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me.
John 12: 49-50
At the core of Christian belief, prayer, and practice is the petition from the Our Father, “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven.” As we read from Acts during this Easter Season, we may be amazed at how very concretely the early believing community seemed to have access to God’s will and to the call of the Holy Spirit. Today we see that in the gathering, fasting, and prayer of the Antioch community, there appears to be quite direct access to God’s will. The Holy Spirit, in the account given, actually speaks to the community. If this doesn’t leave us envious, it at least leaves us wondering: “What must we do to know God’s will and be led by the Holy Spirit?”
The details of the account in Acts may afford us some direction for living more discerningly. We are told that the Spirit speaks while the community is “offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast.” Praying, worshipping, and keeping a fast together are ways of “waiting” on the Lord. Perhaps one of our greatest obstacles to attending to God’s will and Spirit is our demand that God give us direction based on our timetable. In a recent conversation with a friend, he reminded me of how a deep “yes” to life usually first requires a series of “no’s.” To give the Spirit a chance to move us, we must first create a space of quiet and receptivity by saying no to the demands of all that is anxious and compulsive in us.
In today’s gospel from John, Jesus reminds those around him that he speaks not on his own authority but instead speaks what the Father “has bidden” him to say. The Word of God that created the earth and that came to us definitively in the person of Jesus is always being spoken. Individually and communally we are a capacity to hear and to respond to that Word, to act and speak in service to that Word. The truth of the matter, however, is that most often our words and deeds are not in service to that Word but rather to the pulsations, impulses, and ambitions of our cultures and our own needs, desires, and agenda. It is “after fasting and prayer” that the Christian community of Antioch sends Barnabas and Saul off to do the Spirit’s work and the Father’s will. What is the place of fasting, silence, and prayer in our own attempts to discern direction? So often, we think we don’t have time to “do nothing” before we act or speak. To pass from our sense of time to God’s time and our will to God’s will is, perhaps, the most difficult of human tasks. Perhaps, the experience of the Community of Antioch seems so distant from our experience because we do not “take the time” individually and communally to allow the Word in which we live to give form to our lives.
On this feast of St. Catherine of Siena, we pray with her to come to know that it is “in your nature, eternal Godhead, [that] I shall come to know my nature” as a participation in the fire of God’s love for the world.
In your nature,
I shall come to know my nature.
And what is my nature, boundless love?
It is fire,
because you are nothing but a fire of love.
And you have given humankind
a share in this nature,
for by the fire of love
you created us.
And so with all other people
and every created thing;
you made them out of love.
O ungrateful people!
What nature has your God given you?
His very own nature!
Are you not ashamed to cut yourself off from such a noble thing
through the guilt of deadly sin?
O eternal Trinity,
my sweet love!
give us light.
give us wisdom.
You, supreme strength,
Today, eternal God,
let our cloud be dissipated
so that we may perfectly know and follow your Truth
with a free and simple heart.
God, come to our assistance!
Lord, make haste to help us!
Prayer of St. Catherine of Siena