Readings: Esther 4:17; Psalm 138; Matthew 7:7-12
Esther is renowned for her beauty and for her courage. When we first hear of her we are told that out of all the young women in the kingdom, she catches the king's eye. She 'found favour in his sight': in other words she was the one he noticed out of all the candidates who wanted to be his consort. She must have been a woman of exceptional beauty.
Reading her story tells us that she was also a woman of exceptional courage. We know that perfect love casts out fear but we know also that our love is never perfect. So something of fear remains. And there can even be a heightened fear in relation to those we love, of disappointing them, of offending them, of wounding them. Great love is compatible then with great fear, not with the servile and self-centred fear of punishment which is cast out by love, but with the kind of fear we experience in the presence of great beauty, real holiness, undeniable goodness. A fear that is a kind of awe.
Courage is not a virtue that removes fear but a virtue that enables us to do what is right in spite of fear. We remain afraid even in the moment in which we act courageously. And we see this in the power of Esther's prayer, part of which is read as today's first reading. She is not so much afraid of God as she is afraid of her husband: she needs to take her life in her hands, and risk his wrath, if she is to intercede for the people.
But she does it, she is given words with which to pray. 'Save us from the hand of our enemies', she says, 'turn our mourning into gladness and our sorrows into wholeness'. Deliver us from evil.
Jesus encourages us to have the same attitude of confidence and trust in the Father. We should turn to him in prayer even when we are afraid and apprehensive, when we find it awesome and intimidating. Ask, seek, knock. If you cannot find words use the words of Esther, or the words of Job, or the words of the Psalms, above all the words Jesus taught us. They all speak already of the things for which we want to pray.
We should be practising prayer and this is the only way to learn it. We are already over a week into Lent and it is one of the main purposes of this season, to get back to prayer, to do it more regularly, to give more time and energy to it. We may need courage first, if we feel oppressed by our sins, disappointed at the state of our soul. We may need to go to confession in order to lift that oppression and banish that disappointment. And then we can pray with courage again.
And we must remember our neighbour in our prayers. Jesus will not let us take refuge in an egocentric spiritual life, a self-centred cultivation of 'holiness'. 'Do to others whatever you would have them do to you', he says in today's gospel. 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us', he says in the Our Father. Her love for her people gives Esther the courage to speak, firstly to God, and then to the king. When we too are moved by the great need of others we will find it easy to pray, the words will come. We will find also the courage not only to speak to God but to face into whatever it is human need asks of us.