This morning many of the Wyoming State legislators and other state officials gathered at Little America for the annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. I was asked by Governor Mead to give this year’s address, which I share with you here.
The Power and Necessity of Prayer
Address at Governor’s Prayer Breakfast, February 11, 2014
The Most Reverend Paul D. Etienne, Bishop of Cheyenne
First of all, please allow me to thank you, Governor Mead for your invitation to be with all of you this morning for this time of prayer. I wish to thank you and all our other distinguished guests present here today for your service to the people of Wyoming.
I’ve gone through a number of ideas and drafts of what I might say this morning, but finally settled on this question: “Why a Prayer breakfast?”
In his First Letter to the Thessalonians (5:17) St. Paul says: “Pray without ceasing.”
And again in the Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul says: “With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit. To that end, be watchful with all perseverance and supplication for all the holy ones…” I would suggest that ‘all the holy ones’ are God’s people, and God’s people are those you and I have been called and or elected to serve. So, it is right to pray for them.
The encouragement to pray is in and of itself an instruction that the human person is created for relationship with God. Most of our life we wrongly think that prayer is about our action towards God, when in reality, it is what opens us to the reality of God’s unrelenting pursuit of each one of us. True human greatness is achieved when we are open to what God is longing to do for us and within us. Once a human person understands that their greatest dignity is found in their relationship with God, their own life is no longer self-referential, or self-serving. The realization that we are called to relationship with God then opens us and all of society to something that lies beyond us, but yet, with God’s assistance, is always within our reach.
So, again, why a prayer breakfast? Do we come to simply check-off this particular part of the day’s to-do list and then be on our way, as if our conversation with God has nothing to do with what we do the rest of the day? When we rise from prayer, do we put God in a box until we are ready to talk to Him again? This would be the safe thing to do. For, God is an awesome God. Indeed, when He summoned the People Israel to the base of the mountain before calling Moses up the mountain to receive the commandments, the people were so frightened with this epiphany of God’s presence and power they begged Moses to speak to God on their behalf, because they were too afraid to do so personally.
To approach prayer in this manner, and to approach God in this manner undermines the reality that we are all created by God, for relationship with God. To put the God who created us in a box as if we created Him and He not us leaves the human heart frustrated and closed off from its highest calling and human potential. All of creation finds its order and harmony in the Creator, and this is especially true of the human person, and if this is true for the human person, then it only makes sense that it holds true for society.
I would like to share with you three stories today which speak of the creative genius of God. They will go from humorous to serious; from creation, which is naturally ordered to God, to the human which must freely embrace God’s call to discover the fullness of one’s potential.
Three years ago, I was discovering the joy of fly fishing. As a native Hoosier, I did not have any experience with fly fishing when I came to Wyoming in 2009. I had asked one of my priests to go with me on a fly fishing trip which someone gave me as a welcome gift to Wyoming. So, we went to Saratoga, Hack’s Tackle, and made our way to the launch point on the North Platte for an all day float trip.
We had a very good guide who was being very attentive to the “bishop.” A few hours into the float, just about an hour before we stopped for lunch, I was noticing that my priest friend was having much more success from the back of the boat than I was from the front. I pointed this out to the guide. He told me to just keep fishing. So, after a little more of the same pattern, I told the guide: “If I don’t start getting some hits, I’m going to start cheating.” He got this strange look on his face and looked at me and said: “Bishop, how does one cheat when fishing?” I told him: “I’m going to start praying.” He just laughed…
So, after another 20 minutes or so, I said: “OK, I’m going to start cheating.” He just smiled. About a minute later I tied into a significant fish. I did not realize just how nice a fish I had on the hook, but the guide and my partner did. The guide about had a heart attack when I started one-handing the fly rod to reach into my pocket to dig out my camera to give him to take a picture. He started stammering: “Both hands, Bishop! Both hands!” Within an unusually short time, I landed a 26 inch Brown Trout. The guide had to anchor the boat to calm down. He told me: “Bishop, I’ve been guiding this stretch of river for ten years, and many people have hooked some big fish, but that is the biggest fish anyone has landed in my boat!” I learned this fall that record still holds for him.
Now, I’m not suggesting that praying will always conjure up the largest fish, or a win for your favorite team, but I believe it made a significant impression upon this young man.
The next story takes us to a hunting scenario. This past Fall, Justice Scalia was in- State for a few days to do some antelope and mule deer hunting. Justice Scalia being a strong Catholic, the family where he was staying asked if I would come out to celebrate Mass for them while he was there. I of course obliged, and made two visits during his stay.
The home is situated on a ranch, so I set up the altar on a small table in the living room with my back to the window. After Mass, one of those in attendance told me: “Bishop, we wish you could have seen the view we had during Mass. As you were celebrating the Eucharist, the cows gathered outside the window and were peering inside.” I told them: “That is no surprise, because all of nature has an innate sense of the Divine. All of nature is naturally ordered to the Divine.”
Later that evening, Justice Scalia shared a personal story of his days at Georgetown University. He recalled his final exam before graduation. He said in those days, you had to pass a comprehensive oral exam. So, I found myself in a room with six Jesuit professors asking me questions. My degree was in history, and I will never forget the final question of that exam.
The Jesuit professor looked at me and said: “Well, Mr. Scalia, you have answered quite well, showing a good mastery of the material. I have one final question for you: “What in your estimation was the greatest event in history?” I thought to myself: “Well, you’ve just been told that you have aced this exam, so this answer does not really matter all that much. I remember thinking of a couple possible responses and diving in. After I was done, the professor looked at me and said: ‘Mr. Scalia, you are wrong. The greatest event in history was the Incarnation. Never separate your faith from your work.’”
Great advice for each and every one of us.
Finally, on a more personal story: Recently I was unable to sleep at night. This is quite often the case, and seems to happen more regularly when the legislature is in session! But, this night, I was quite disturbed about something, and was not quite sure what the right approach was and was quite restless. I have a Blessed Sacrament Chapel in my residence, so I just went to the chapel, and sat there before the Blessed Sacrament and told the LORD: “How do you expect me to serve you tomorrow if you will not let me sleep tonight?” And just like that, I knew I had only one option: place my burden in his hands.
In closing, we pray because we are in relationship with God. We pray not so much to tell God what is going on in our life, but to open our hearts and minds and lives to God, that He may share with us the desires of His heart. This divine desire for the human person is the true source of hope that causes every human heart to soar. God is the true Good that when pursued and served brings satisfaction to the human heart and harmony to the human community.