What Jesus Teaches Us About Prayer
by Rev. Marcus Pollard
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation."
And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, ' Friend, lend me three loves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,' and he says in reply from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.' I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.
"And I tell you, ask and you will receive, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy spirit to those who ask him?"
In this week’s Gospel reading, St. Luke describes Jesus’ teaching to the apostles about how to pray:
“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished … .” One of the aspects of the life and reaching of Jesus that is found in St. Luke’s Gospel is the reality of prayer. Prayer is explicitly mentioned 25 times. This includes moments and teachings from Jesus’ life and ministry. It also includes the importance of prayer in the lives of Zechariah and the Blessed Mother. Zechariah, the priest, was in the midst of the liturgy prayer and rites of the daily incense offering in the temple when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him with the announcement of a gift of a son to he and his elderly wife Elizabeth, their son St. John the Baptist. The unforgettable statement made by St. Luke about Mary’s prayer life as the events of Jesus’ annunciation, birth and childhood proceeded is: “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Our Lord is described on five different occasions as praying before major events and announcements. This Gospel also records Our Lord’s command concerning persecution and eventually His second coming; “But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.”
So for us, before we even address how to pray, this Gospel clearly reminds us of the essential role of frequent, serious and varying kinds of prayer as part of the Christian life. All by itself that can pose a real challenge. Day-to-day live is busy; it is full of all sorts of important activities. Yet in last week’s Gospel commentary here in the Catholic Herald, Father Jerry Pokorsky clearly pointed out the importance and superiority of the contemplative dimension of the Christian life over the active dimension. As important as it is to feed, clothe and care for people’s bodily needs, it is even more so for the needs of the soul.
“One of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.’” What a great question. If all of us when we struggle to pray would only be so simple, humble and honest with Our Lord, our prayer lives would vastly improve. Most of the rest of this week’s Gospel addresses expand on the value of going to the Lord in prayer and doing so perseveringly. As to the context of it, we see in this question an aspect of St. John’s ministry that is witnessed by the apostles, but only explicitly described in the Gospels; he taught his disciples, St. Andrew being one of them, how to pray. Going back even further, formation in prayer and worship was one of the most important aspects of Jewish life. If spirituality is the dimension of religious life that is about the experience of a personal and intimate relationship with God, then spirituality was the font from which all true religion flows. From the Lord with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to Noah before the flood, to Abram in the desert, to Jacob wrestling with the angel, to Moses on Mount Sinai, to the lives of the prophets, the whole life of faith presented in the Old Testament always begins with the personal encounter of the soul with the Lord. The Lord initiates and the first response is prayer: receiving, listening and responding to the Lord’s call. Even in children today, the first truly and fully human moment of their faith life is the interior awareness of the reality of the Lord in faith and their personal response in prayer.
“He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.’” One of the most beautiful and useful modern commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer is found in retired Pope Benedict XVI’s work: the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth. He has followed in a long line of saints and theologians who have done so (among older commentaries, my favorite is the one by St. Teresa of Jesus in The Way of Perfection). In all that I have read about the Lord’s Prayer, the idea that keeps coming up as central is that what the Lord shared with His disciples was the fruit of His own interior spiritual life. Further, central to that is the address: “Father.” In the life of the divine persons of the Blessed Trinity, the Father is the source of the Trinity. In and through His sacred humanity, Jesus manifested His continual attention and devotion to His Father. If we were to go through the Gospels and count, we would find that Jesus explicitly refers to His Father about 200 times.
When we pray, we naturally call to mind the image or idea of the Lord that is most familiar. What Our Lord had in mind for the apostles was that part of His fulfillment of the old covenant was that all the Old Testament images and modes by which the Lord was known to the Jews be subsumed into this revelation of: “Father,” Only the Son can reveal the Father; only the Father can reveal the Son; and only in the Holy Spirit who was sent can we call Him “Lord.” To be open to the Holy Spirit and to be on intimate terms with Jesus all means that we can know our Father and His love for us.
“And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend … he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.’ And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
For the apostles who heard this, they would probably have struggled during the course of Jesus’ public life and ministry because of all the opposition they ran into and in their fixation on the idea that the Lord was going to be the new Moses ushering in a new earthly form of the kingdom of God. The culmination of this frustration would have been their experience of Jesus’ arrest, passion and death. All their prayers would have seemed fruitless at that point. Fortunately they had the presence of Our Lady to encourage them and even challenge them. By late at night on Easter Sunday they would have begun to enter into a newly found respect for the Lord’s admonition to continue in prayer and know that those prayers would be answered according to His will, His plan and His timing. The next experience they would have had of seeing the fruits of asking, seeking and knocking, again with Our Lady’s help, would have been in the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost after the first novena, begun after the Lord’s ascension.
Probably my favorite part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the section on the theology and practice of prayer, found before the commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. If there is any section especially valuable as spiritual reading, that is it. One practical piece of advice that may be beneficial is that praying is essentially a matter of making the offering of our time and attention to the Lord and His word. We bring all of ourselves to our prayer and need to be more and more open to the Lord’s gift and sharing of Himself to us, not necessarily as we want, but always as we need. Our asking, seeking and knocking guarantees that we will receive the good things the Father has in mind for when we do so with the conviction: “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.”
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