THE IMAGE OF HANNAH IN the First Book of Samuel ch. 1, vv 9-20, praying in the Temple, desperately asking for a male child, teaches us some simple lessons about prayer, about what prayer is, and about how to pray.

Hannah desperately wanted a male child.  She represents many a woman in our Nigerian society today-the woman who is mocked by society because she has no child, the woman who has children but has no male child.  Our society unjustly considers a woman worthless because she has no "fruit of the womb".  But a woman, created in the image and likeness of God, has her value whether or not she has a child. 

While we pray for all women who are looking for a child, while we pray that the Lord grant their hearts' desire as he did to Hannah, we must emphasize that if a man really loves his spouse, childlessness will neither reduce not remove true love.  Childlessness becomes an occasion to show her that she is truly loved.  Love is put to the test by challenges of married life, and childlessness is one of such challenges.  But for a true Christian, a challenge is an occasion to show love.

Our African society unjustly blames a woman without a male child.  But science shows that at the moment of conceiving a child, it is not the woman but the man who determines whether the child is male or female.  In any case, there is need to  change a way of thinking that gives more value to the male child than to the female child.  The female child has been given equal dignity by the creator.  God did not make women to be unequal to men.  The equality of man and woman is symbolically represented in the creation of the woman from the side of the man.  She was not created from below, for that would have  made  her  inferior to the man.  Neither was she created from above, for that would have made her superior to the man.  She was created from the side to symbolize her equality with the man.

It is a sin to treat a woman as inferior to the man.  God created men and women as equals.  Male chauvinism is contrary to the will of God.  It is a grave sin for which many of us African men should go to confession and beg for forgiveness.  Equally sinful is the presumption that a woman has no religion except that of her husband.  Religion is a matter of conviction.  To deny a woman the right to hold her religious conviction amounts to denying that she has a mind, and to deny that she has a mind means she is subhuman.  To treat a woman as subhuman just because she is a woman is a grave sin.

But we must return to the story of Hannah and what the story teaches us.  First, Hannah presented herself  before  the  Lord in prayer.  And that is what prayer is.  Prayer is presenting ourselves before the Lord.  Not only ourselves, but also others.  For if you present only yourself your prayer is selfish.  But selfishness contradicts prayer.  Prayer is presenting ourselves and others before the Lord.  That is the first lesson to learn from the story of Hannah.

The second lesson is that, sometimes, we have to pray in tears.  Even Jesus the Son of God prayed in tears.  The Letter to the Hebrews, in the Second Reading of Good Friday, spoke of Jesus as one who, during his life on earth, offered up prayers in loud cries and in silent tears.  If the Son of God prayed in tears, who am I not to pray in tears?

Our tears show that we are little and fragile before God.  But even in our tearful prayers, we must have faith in God who sustains us in our weakness.  Our tears say to God the words of a popular hymn, "Just a closer walk with thee", words which say: "I am weak but thou art strong."  Even in our weakness we are strong because the Lord in whom we hope is strong.  But that does not mean when you are sick you say you are strong, as some people do.

A third lesson to be learnt from Hannah is that we are to pray when we are unhappy and when we are happy.  Hannah prayed because she was unhappy.  But we must not only pray when we are unhappy, when we are sorrowful or in misery.  We are to pray even when we are happy.  We are to pray when we are happy so that we will not be broken when we are unhappy.  We are to pray when we are strong because we will need such prayers when we are too weak to pray.

In his book, A Gift of Peace, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin  of Chicago wrote of his experience as he  was dying of cancer.  He said, among other things, that at a point in his illness, he became too weak to pray.  So, he wrote:  we should pray when we are strong because we will need it when we are weak. Jesus is an example in this regard.

He prayed in joyful gratitude to the Father when his disciples came back to him after their successful mission, thanking the Lord of heaven and of earth for revealing to merest children the mysteries he had hidden from the wise and the learned.  He also prayed in sorrow and in fear in the Garden of Gethsemane, even as he submitted to his Father's will.  Prayer is presenting oneself to God when the going is good and when the going is rough.  Prayer when the going is smooth keeps us strong when the going gets rough.

There is a fourth lesson to be added.  It does not come from the example of Hannah.  It comes from Jesus' first appearance in the synagogue as narrated in the Gospel according to Mark.  The Gospel according to Mark tells us how Jesus went into the synagogue in Capernaum, and how, right in the synagogue, there was a man with an unclean spirit.

The word "synagogue" means a place of gathering, a place where people gather to worship.  Jesus went into the synagogue, and there was an unclean spirit in the synagogue.  It's like saying there was an unclean spirit among those at Mass.  But the moment Jesus entered, everything changed.  The presence of Jesus disturbed the unclean spirit.  The spirit was expelled at Jesus' command.

The human soul is like a synagogue.  In the synagogue that the soul is can be found a gathering of good and evil desires, clean and unclean spirits.  When the soul receives Jesus in the holy Eucharist, Jesus, as it were, enters the synagogue that the human soul is, he purifies it by his presence, expelling its unclean desires.  That enables us to understand the fourth lesson about prayer.  That fourth lesson is this: when we pray, we must desire the Lord himself. 

We must seek the goodness that the Lord is.  We are not just to desire goodness from the Lord.  We must desire the goodness that the Lord is more than we desire the goodness that the Lord gives.  The goodness of the Lord, the goodness that the Lord is, is his will.  To desire to know and do his will is to desire the Lord himself.  There is the story of how the Lord appeared to St Thomas Aquinas and asked him: "Thomas," "you have written so well about me.  What would you like as your reward?"

St Thomas answered: "Nothing but you, Lord."  And that should be our own prayer too.  The greatest  prayer  is to desire the Lord himself.  When you desire him, you live by his word and he lives in you.  The greatest gift we can have is the gift of the Lord himself, living in us dwelling in our souls.  That is the gift we are offered in the Eucharist, the gift we receive at every Mass, the greatest of all gifts.

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