One of the struggles people often have in praying is that they are not sure what to “do” when they pray. This is especially true for those who want to pray for more than a few moments at a time. Perhaps they have taken up the laudable custom of making a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, or of devoting themselves to a half hour of mental prayer each day. It is often helpful to have a structure, for prayer of this sort, and Jesus himself actually gives us one in the Our Father.
I want to recommend for your consideration that the Our Father gives us more than words to say. It also gives us a structure for our prayer life, a basic plan for our spiritual life. It makes sense that when one goes to pray, understanding the basic structure and elements of prayer will be helpful. And the Lord does not disappoint us or leave us unschooled in the basic shape of prayer.
Lord teach us to pray – Consider that, according to Luke, the Lord gave the Our Father, he was responding to a request of the apostles who said, Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples (Luke 11:1). They did not ask to be given words to say, but to taught how to pray. Thus, while the words of the Our Father are precious, it is also important to look at the underlying structure implicit in the prayer so as to learn “how to pray.” The insight is that Jesus, more than giving words is illustrating by these words what ought to be going on in us interiorly, in our mind and heart as we pray: Here is what the mind and heart of a person of prayer is like.
Let’s consider then, five basic disciplines, taught by Jesus in the Our Father that form a kind of structure for prayer:
1. RELATE – Our Father who art in heaven – Here begins true spirituality: Relate to the Father! Relate to him with family intimacy, affection, reverence and love. We are not praying the “the Deity” or the “Godhead.” We are praying to our Father who loves us, who provides for us and, who sent his only Son to die for us and save us. When Jesus lives his life in us and His Spirit dwells in us we begin to experience God as our Abba, (Father).
As developed in other New Testament texts, the deeper Christian word Abba underlies the prayer. Abba is the family word for the more generic and formal word “father.” When my Father was alive I did not call him “Father” I called him “Dad.” This is really what the word Abba is getting at. It is the family word for Father. It indicates family ties, intimacy, close bonds. Why the word Abba is not used here in the Our Father is uncertain. St. Paul develops the theme here: For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15 ) and here: And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”(Gal 4:6 ).
Ask God for the gift to experience him as Abba. At the heart of our worship and prayer is a deep and personal experience of God’s love and fatherly care for us. The first discipline or practice of the Spiritual life is to RELATE to God as to a Father who loves us and to experience him as Abba.
2. REJOICE – hallowed by thy name! The praise and love of God is the essential discipline and element of our spiritual lives. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift and to Him our praise is due. Praise and thanksgiving make us people of hope and joy. It is for this that we were made. God created us, so that we…might live for his praise and glory (Eph 1:12).
Our prayer life should feature much joyful praise. Take a psalm of praise and pray it joyfully. Take the Gloria of the Mass and pray it with gusto! Rejoice in God, praise his name. Give glory to him who rides above the clouds.
There may be times when, due to some sadness or difficulty, we do not feel emotionally like praising God. Praise the anyhow! Scripture says, I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1). Praise is to be a regular discipline of prayer, rooted even more in the will, than just the feelings. God is worthy our praise.
Ultimately praise is a refreshing way to pray, since we were made to praise God, and when we do what we were made to do, we experience a kind of satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment. The second element and discipline of the spiritual life is a life of vigorous praise: REJOICE!
3. RECEIVE – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – At the heart of this petition is an openness to God’s will, to his word of instruction, to his plan for us and for this world. When Jesus lives in us we hunger for God’s word and strive to know his will and have it operative in our life.
A basic component and discipline of the prayer and the spiritual life, is to receive the Word and instruction of God, so that his will might be manifest to us, and we can obey. We ought to pray the Scriptures (lectio divina). We ought to study the faith through the Catechism or other means. These are ways that we become open to God’s will that his Kingdom might be manifest in our lives.
The Third element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is an openness to to God’s teachings through the Church and Scriptures: RECEIVE!
4. REQUEST – Give us today our daily bread – Intercessory prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. Allow “bread,” in this case, to be a symbol of all our needs. Our greatest need of course is to be fed by God, and thus bread also points to the faithful reception of the Eucharist.
Intercessory prayer is the prayer of asking for God’s help in every need. Take every opportunity to pray for others. When watching the news or reading the newspaper, pray the news. Much of the news contains many things for which to pray: victims of crime, disaster or war, the jobless, homeless and afflicted. Many are locked in sin and bad behavior, corruption, confusion, bad priorities and the like. Many are away from the sacraments and no longer seek their Eucharistic bread who is Christ. Pray, pray, pray.
There are also good things we hear of and we should be grateful and ask that solutions be lasting. This intercessory prayer flows from our love and solidarity with others. We see the world with the compassion of Christ and pray. The fourth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to INTERCEDE for ourselves and others.
5. REPENT – and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. – Sin is understood at two levels here: 1: sin – (lowercase) our personal sins and trespasses, also referred to as our “trespasses.” 2. Sin (upper case) – referring to the whole climate of sin, the structures of sin that reinforce and underlie our own sins. Referred to here as “evil.”
An essential element of our spiritual life is that we come to recognize the sins, and deep drives of sins, in our own life, to beg deliverance from them as well as mercy. It is also true that we live in a sin soaked world were the powers and principalities of evil have great influence. We cannot fail to recognize this and pray that it’s power will be curbed.
Then too, we must also pray for the grace to show mercy to others. For it often happens that sin escalates through resentments, and retribution rooted in unforgiving attitudes. We must pray to be delivered from these hurts and resentments so as to be able to break the cycle of violence and revenge that keeps sin multiplying.
But in the end we must pray for the Lord’s grace and mercy to end evil in our own lives and that the whole world. The Fifth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to REPENT of evil.
So here then is a structure for our prayer and spiritual life contained in the Our Father. Jesus teaches us to pray, and gives us a basic structure for prayer. Note:
- Some may use this an actual structure for daily prayer. Hence, if they are going to spend 25 minutes praying, they spend about five minutes on each aspect.
- Others may use this structure for an over all reference for their spiritual life in general. Hence, one might ask if these aspects and disciplines are reflected well in their overall prayer life.
- It does not follow that all five need to be done every day without fail, but the Lord teaches here the basic elements that ought to be present in our spiritual life in a regular sort of way.
- For those whose personal prayer time is more contemplative (rather than meditative) #s 3,4 & 5 would likely be accomplished at times other than personal prayer time. These are usually accomplished in or by attending Mass, reading the Liturgy of the Hours, or other spiritual reading. Aspirations and sighs through the day are often a good way to accomplish intercessory prayer as well. Repentance too is can be accomplished by a daily examination of conscience before bed and of course by regular confession.
Here is the Our Father sung in Aramaic, the Language of Jesus: