Last week’s Gospel featured the Lord insisting that prayer was “the one thing necessary.” This week, we see the disciples’ request that the Lord teach them on prayer. In answer, the Lord gives three basic teachings or prescriptions for prayer.
Let’s look at these three prescriptions.
I. Pattern of Prayer – The Gospel opens as follows: 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 ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test.”
We must be careful to understand that in giving us the “Our Father,” the Lord Jesus is not simply providing us with words to say. More than this, He is giving us a pattern for prayer; He is “teaching us to pray.” He does this in response to the disciples, who did not ask to be given words to say, but to be 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.” By these words, Jesus is illustrating what ought to be going on in us interiorly, in our mind and heart, as we pray.
There are five basic disciplines taught in the Our Father, and they form a kind of pattern or structure for prayer. I use here the Mattean version of the prayer only because it is more familiar to most people, but all the basic elements are the same regardless of the version.
1. RELATE – Our Father who art in heaven – Here begins true spirituality: Relate to the Father! Relate to him with familial intimacy, affection, reverence, and love. We are not merely praying to 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, our 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 own father was alive, I did not call him “Father”; I called him “Dad.” This is really what the word Abba is getting at. 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 like praising God. Praise the Lord anyway! 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 in feelings. God is worthy our praise.
Ultimately, praise is a refreshing way to pray, because 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 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 prayer and the spiritual life is receiving 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 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” 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 people for whom we should pray: victims of crime, disaster, or war; the jobless; the homeless; and the afflicted. Many are locked in sin, bad behavior, corruption, confusion, and bad priorities. 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 for 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 on two levels here: (1) sin (lowercase) refers to our personal sins, also referred to as our trespasses, and (2) Sin (upper case) refers 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 the deep drives of sins in our own life so that we can beg deliverance from them as well as mercy.
It is also true that we live in a sin-soaked world, where the powers and principalities of evil have great influence. We cannot fail to recognize this and pray that its 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 the desire for retribution rooted in unforgiving attitudes. We must pray to be delivered from these 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 in the whole world. The fifth element and discipline of prayer and the spiritual life is to repent of evil.
So this, 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. Some may use this as an actual structure for daily prayer; if they are going to spend twenty-five minutes praying, they spend about five minutes on each aspect. Others may use this structure as an overall reference for their spiritual life in general, trying to reflect these aspects and disciplines well in their overall prayer life.
Thus the first teaching of the Lord is to give us a pattern for prayer. We now go on to the next prescription.
II. The Persistence of Prayer – Jesus goes on to say, Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, “Friend, lend me three loaves 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.
Jesus tells a similar parable in Luke 18, of an unjust judge and a persistent widow. At the end of the parable, the judge gives her justice because of her demanding persistence.
The upshot of both of these parables is that if even a grouchy neighbor and an unjust judge will respond to persistence, how much more will God the Father (who is neither unjust nor grouchy) respond to those who call out to Him day and night?
The teaching that we persist in prayer is something of a mystery. God is not deaf. He is not forgetful. He is not stubborn. Yet He teaches in many places that we are to persevere, even pestering Him, in our prayer.
Why He teaches this cannot be for His sake; it must be for ours. Perhaps He seeks to help us clarify what we really want. Maybe He wants to strengthen our faith. Perhaps He wants to instill in us appreciation for the finally answered prayer. Whatever it may be, the exact reason is a mystery. But persistent prayer is taught and insisted upon by Jesus, here and elsewhere.
Some may wonder why our prayers are not always effective. Some of the usual explanations from Scripture are:
- Our faith is not strong enough. Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22). And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6-7). There is also the sad case of Nazareth, where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58).
- We ask for improper things or we ask with wrong motives. The Book of James says, When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:3).
- Unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked. Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear (Isaiah 59:1-2).
- We have not been generous with the requests and needs of others. If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered (Proverbs 21:13).
- God cannot trust us with blessings, for we are not conformed to His word or trustworthy with lesser things. If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you (John 15:7). So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12)
Now all these explanations are fine, but even if not a single one of them applies to us, God often delays anyway.
One day a man prayed to God and asked, “How long is a million years to you?” And He replied, “About a minute.” The man then asked, “How much is a million dollars to you?” And God replied, “About a penny.” The man then asked, “May I have a penny?” And God said, “In a minute.”
God’s “delay” and our need to persist and persevere in prayer are mysterious aspects of God’s providence, but they are taught; there is no doubt about that.
Pray, Pray, Pray! The insistence on persistence is taught to us all, not just to the sinful and the weak in faith. Realize that this is part of what is required of the Christian. Prayer is about more than “calling and hauling” or “naming and claiming.” It is also about persevering, about persisting. St. Monica prayed for thirty years, it would seem, for Augustine to accept the Faith. Some of us have prayed even longer for loved ones. In the end, God seems to require persistence for some things, and we dare not give up or become discouraged. We just have to keep praying: Pray, pray, pray!
Note that the two of the three images for persistent prayer (asking, seeking, and knocking) given by Jesus involve an ongoing action. Asking can be done only once, but it can be repeated. Seeking implies an ongoing, even lengthy, search. Knocking is a repeated rapping at the door. One does not usually knock by rapping once, but with several rapid and repeated raps. And when there is no answer, the pattern is repeated a few times. The second prescription for prayer is to persist, to persevere.
III. The Point of Prayer – Jesus then concludes, 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?
The rhythm of the Lord’s analogy seems a bit odd here. If an earthly father knows how to “give good gifts” to his son, then we would expect Jesus to say that the Heavenly Father also knows how to give “good gifts” to those who ask. But Jesus does not say this. Rather, He says that the Father gives “the Holy Spirit.”
Why is this? Because it is the highest gift, and contains all others. To receive the Holy Spirit is to receive the love of God, the Glory of God, the life of God, and the Wisdom of God. It is to receive God Himself, who comes to live in us as in a temple. And with this gift comes every other gift and consolation, for by the Holy Spirit we begin to think and see more as God does. We attain to His priorities and desire what He desires. We see sins and worldly attachments begin to go away. And thus the world loses its hold on us and can no longer vex us.
Jesus says elsewhere, Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:33). Yes, to receive the gift of God the Holy Spirit is to receive all other things as well, for nothing more can disturb us. One day, St. Thomas Aquinas sensed that the Lord asking him what he would like. St. Thomas replied, Nil nisi te, Domine (Nothing except you, O Lord). For those who love God and have progressed in prayer, that really is all that is wanted. God can give cars, new jobs, and financial blessings—and for some, such things are needed. But why not aim for the highest and best gift as well? Ask for the Gift of the Holy Spirit: Nil nisi te Domine!
Ultimately, the point of all prayer is deep communion with the Lord. This is our high calling: to be in communion with the Lord here and one day fully in the glory of Heaven. Don’t miss the ultimate point of prayer.
Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
Thy wings shall my petition bear
To Him whose truth and faithfulness
Engage the waiting soul to bless.
And since He bids me seek His face,
Believe His Word and trust His grace,
I’ll cast on Him my every care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!