Readings: 1 Sm 3:1-10, 19-20; Ps 40; Mk 1:29-39
Whenever I read today’s passage from First Samuel I’m taken back to January of 1976 when our elder son spent almost a month in the ICU at the Naval Academy Hospital suffering from meningitis. For weeks Diane lived in that ICU to be with our boy. And every morning before work I’d go to Mass at the Redemptorist church out in town and pray for his recovery. And it was during those weeks that I and the rest of that small, early morning congregation heard the story of Hanna and Samuel and Eli. And, morning after morning, as the story progressed I found myself rethinking my prayer.
In those days – and I suppose this is true for too many Christians – I really knew very little about prayer. Prayer to me was largely a form of mental begging – you know, pestering God with requests, pleading with God to make changes to all those things and people in my life that didn’t seem to line up the way I thought they should. In other words, in my prayer I was focused on asking God to recreate my little corner of the world to my specifications.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with asking God for help in our lives, nothing wrong with offering those intentions for good things. Indeed, God encourages us to do so. And in a few moments, as a parish community, we’ll do just that. But if our prayer stops there, we run the risk of being self-centered instead of God-centered. Of course, back in 1976 I didn’t know this…until I encountered Samuel…
Yes, this child who’d been given to God by his mother, this child who would become one of the great prophets, this child taught me how to pray. For little Samuel’s prayer was so very different from my prayer. Samuel didn’t pester God with personal requests and petitions. No, he simply turned to his Lord and said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Now, this was a revelation to me. I had read these words from the Old Testament many times before, but for some reason they simply hadn’t clicked. I had never thought of these words of Samuel as prayer.
And then the very next verse…“Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.” Do you see what it’s telling us? That Samuel spent his life in prayer, not so much talking to the Lord, as listening to the Lord. Remember the responsorial verse of our psalm? “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.”
To do this, though, to be open to God’s will in our lives, we must learn to make our prayer a prayer of listening. We must step away from our lives, immersing ourselves in God’s life so we can better discern His will for us.
“Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” What a great refrain for anyone, any day, but especially for us now as we begin a new year. I can think of no better resolution than to strive to imitate Samuel, making our lives God-centered.
In Samuel we also see a foreshadowing of Jesus Himself, for it is Jesus Who in perfect obedience does the will of the Father. It is Jesus Who, in His humanity, becomes the servant and like Samuel can pray to the Father: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And like Samuel, Jesus rises early from His bed, left the others and, as Mark tells us, “went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” Yes, we can learn from the little ones, the holy Samuels with the simple but constant faith of the child, the faith that Jesus told us to imitate.
Indeed, St. Hilary of Poitiers, whose memorial we celebrate today, recognized this when he wrote: "Little children follow and obey their father. They love their mother. They know nothing of covetousness, ill-will, bad temper, arrogance and lying. This state of mind opens the road to heaven. To imitate our Lord's own humility, we must return to the simplicity of God's little ones."
Back in 1976 my prayer changed as a result of little Samuel, but God who is unchangeable – immutable as the theologians say – still healed my young son. It was His will to do so.
Lord, let us pray today that like Samuel, we may hear your call to do Your will today, this new year, for the rest of our lives. Let today be the beginning of a new awareness that you are with us in our ills and troubles, in our hopes and happiness, so that we, too, can pray, “Here am I, Lord, I come to do your will.”