July 2004

Teach us how to pray ©

Each of us has moments of doubt about the value of prayer. We sometimes wonder what it is; how it works and what fruit it bears. We do well in those times to recall the disciple in Luke’s Gospel who, speaking as well for many of us, asks Jesus how to pray.

Jesus’ answer reveals that Christian prayer is really about having an authentic and filial relationship with God as Father. He teaches us to pray as he did and in his name, the Son of God.

Tradition has come to call the model Jesus proposes “the Lord’s Prayer” because these are the words that our Lord Jesus Christ taught to us, as evidenced by passages in the gospels of Matthew as well as Luke.

Matthew gives this lesson enormous importance by placing it at the centre of the Sermon on the Mount, which is the first proclamation of the Good News fulfilled in Christ. But, the Lucan version is generally recognized as being closer to the words actually used by Jesus, particularly because of its simplicity and brevity, suggesting a very special, intimate relationship between the petitioner and God.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the early church father Tertullian described the Lord’s Prayer as the summary of the whole Gospel. Similarly, St. Augustine concluded, “Run though all the words of the holy prayers (in Scripture), and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church recalls, “The Lord’s Prayer is the quintessential prayer of the Church. It is an integral part of the major hours of the Divine Office and of the sacraments of Christian initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Integrated into the Eucharist it reveals the eschatological character of the petitions, hoping for the Lords, “until he comes”. (1 Cor 11:26)

This amazing prayer begins with a key word: “our”. This word recurs throughout this familiar and direct appeal to the Father, referred to tenderly as “Abba”. The word “our” is remarkably weighty. It suggests that our relationship with the Father is not really private, even if prayed in solitude. On the one hand, it is voiced in communion with Jesus who prayed to his heavenly Father at all the major moments in his life. On the other, it is uttered in solidarity with all humanity as adopted sons and daughters, brothers of Christ whose words and life serve to define true Christian prayer.

Another pillar of Christian theology, St. Thomas Aquinas, suggested, “The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers… In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired. This prayer not only teaches us to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them.”

As though to underscore the importance of this eloquent “our”, Jesus begins by asking for the achievement of God’s will across the breadth of creation: “Your will be done on earth.” It is a bold affirmation of what is the right and proper purpose of creation.

Then, when we do get around to asking that our needs be satisfied, we are urged to do so in relationship to the community:. “Give us our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses.” Our prayer, therefore, to be truly Christian must be Trinitarian. It must engage Father, Son and Holy Spirit as well as God, my neighbor and myself.

We see very early on in Scripture this idea of collective responsibility. Though the Gospels present salvation as a matter of personal commitment, it never denies the need to rise to a higher level of consciousness that is clearly Christ-like. In his prayer to save Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18), Abraham supposes that the good and the wicked would die or be sparred together: “Will you not spare the place for the sake of the fifty upright in it.”

This, I think, is one of the keys of prayer’s efficacy: total and earnest realization that we pray as a community, even as we pray to our Father “in that secret place”, which is our heart.

It is indeed the human heart in which fruitful prayer is rooted. Too often, our prayer is from the mind. It rises from our intellect and is directed to the mind of God. Human reason is a divinely created faculty, which serves a very useful purpose. It acts to channel and control our impulses and to help us navigate across a tangled landscape of good and evil. But it is not a substitute for prayer as evidence of an authentic relationship between the Father and his beloved son/ daughter. Jesus teaches us to look upon the tenderness and caring of the Father: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This leads us to a serous consideration of the second word, which is equally significant: “Father”. Already we have noted that it establishes a filial relationship between the creator and the created. While we can profitably consider the teaching role of the parent, in this instance there is greater value in meditating upon the self-giving love, which we associate with even human parenting.

Yet, at the same time, we must guard against using the parenting metaphor inappropriately. Simply stated, God is the model for human fathers to emulate to the best of their ability; not the other way around. Too often, we imagine God from our experience of human fatherhood. Such unwarranted and culture-based comparisons can lead to disastrous consequences. God is simply not bound by our own often overwhelming limitations. In particular, his love is never frustrated or exhausted. God is not tied to the kinds of personal issues that usually limit a human father’s capacity for loving with total patience, kindness and selflessness. You will recognize here the qualities of love as presented by the St. Paul in his often-cited letter to the Corinthians.

From this awareness and relationship with “our Father”, we can then turn to the necessities of life: the building of God’s kingdom, conformity to the laws that the creator put in place at the very beginning of time, and the nourishment we need to accomplish these.

Then, sustained by God’s grace, we ask for spiritual healing and protection. Here too, we ask in communion with others while acknowledging that a condition of healing is our willingness to show mercy and love to the brothers and sisters who have hurt us along life’s journey.

Knowing how to pray, however, does not always suffice. We also must be motivated to pray. And nothing is more motivating than the sure knowledge that the Father hears and responds to our prayers. Hard as it is to know this in our mind, it is even more challenging to hold this belief in our troubled hearts.

That is why Jesus follows his teaching about prayer with numerous examples of the Father’s awesome benevolence: “So I say to you ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?”

Moreover, Jesus insists on how much our Father desires to be in loving dialogue with us. As we first awake to this desire, we are as a child. We respond to God’s kindness by signaling our need to have a meaningful conversation with him. In this “dialogue”, which was actually initiated by God, we signal our engagement and our comfort with him by not only expressing our admiration but also trusting enough in his love to ask for the things that we need: “Ask, and it will be given you.” As with any responsible parent, God responds, not always to our words, but always to the need that our words represent.

Then, as we mature spiritually, we begin to want greater knowledge of our Father. We begin to probe his thoughts and understanding, and to explore the mysteries of his being: “Seek, and you will find.” Though seeking may at times seem frightening or futile because we only ever see partially (“for now we see in a mirror, dimly”), it is a necessary part of the journey to become fully mature in Christ.

Finally, having reached adulthood in the spirit, we gain confidence to sit with him. Knowing that his life is inseparable from our own, we risk everything to dwell in his house. Seeking his perfect peace, we knock, and he opens the door as though he had been standing there all along… waiting patiently for us to come home: “Knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

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So, what does the Lord’s Prayer teach us about the conditions for effective prayer? Here is my conclusion.

To be truly effective, a prayer must be (1) a trusting and loving petition to our Father; (2) in the name of Jesus, his Son; (3) in solidarity through their Spirit with all of our sisters and brothers; (4) in a committed relationship of filial fidelity and devotion; (5) from the heart; (6) oriented toward the achievement of God’s will; (7) expressing in humility and in gratitude our dependency on God for all our needs and protection from evil.