“Teach us how to pray,” the disciples ask Jesus. In answering them Jesus gives us three lessons on prayer. The first is the “Our Father.” The Lord’s Prayer is a simple but “packed” prayer. In a very concise form it captures the essential elements of our prayer life.
We approach God as His children, He our Father. We recognize His greatness dwelling in heaven but accessible to us in the here and now. We acknowledge His holiness and the holiness of His “name.” We pray for His kingdom to be established – in other words we recognize that His plan and designs for the world, for humanity, indeed for us, are greater and more beneficial than anything we could ever devise.
We pray that the Father’s will be done – in the world and more particularly in our lives; we pray that we might know His will and that we would be able to respond to it. We ask for the daily bread that sustains us in life – both corporal and spiritual — food for our bodies and food for our souls.
Finally we ask for forgiveness, recognizing that we are constantly in need of God’s mercy. In this last petition we also acknowledge the expectation that if we are going to ask God for mercy; we must show mercy to others. Every phrase of the “Our Father” affords us great opportunity for reflection on the greatness of God’s love.
The second lesson on prayer is related to persistence. Sometimes in prayer we might think or feel that our prayers are not being answered. We might think that we are “not being heard.” This experience might lead one to despair or to abandon the faith. Jesus’ words are helpful in these experiences.
He tells the story of a friend who comes knocking late at night in need of bread for some visitors. Although it is late, the door is locked and the family is in bed, the bread is given to the friend because he is persistent in his request.
Persistence is an important aspect of prayer for several reasons. Persistence can help bolster our faith. We continually go to our Father with our needs. We place our lives in His hands asking humbly for help. Persistence helps to build our trust in God.
Prayer is an act of faith through which we acknowledge God’s presence, His love and His ability to help us and sustain us. Sometimes we might be tempted to think our prayers are “not being answered.” At these times it is good to remember that essential to our prayer is a humble recognition of God’s greatness.
He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows our needs better than we do. The answer He gives to our prayers is sometimes not the one we are expecting but the one that will be best for us.
The same can be said about time. When we pray we might be tempted to expect the answer immediately. In this experience, we can be reminded that God answers our prayers at the right time, not our time.
An example of this comes from a woman who was found weeping in the church hallway after her sister had just been baptized. When the pastor approached and asked why she was weeping on such a joyful occasion she said, “I almost gave up.” She said 20 years ago “I started praying that my sister would find faith and be baptized. After five years I was getting disappointed but kept going. After 10 years I started to think God was not listening. After 15 years I started to doubt. Four years later I was tempted to give up. Now here we are and my prayer has been answered.” The pastor replied, “you might have been tempted, but you never gave in, so rejoice in God’s goodness and your persistence in prayer.”
Another example of persistence in prayer is seen in the first reading of Sunday’s Mass from the Book of Genesis. The story is somewhat framed in a trial against Sodom and Gomorrah. God has heard of their great sinfulness and wants to see if this is true, as He tells Abraham: “I must go down and see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me. I mean to find out.”
As God walks with Abraham, Abraham asks, “will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there were 50 innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the 50 innocent people?” The Lord replies: “If I find 50 innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” The dialogue continues with Abraham phrasing the same question for 40, 30, 20 and 10 innocent people. The Lord’s reply is the same in each case: “I will not destroy it.”
The message of the story is that God listens to our prayers. Abraham was persistent in his prayer and God listened.
The third lesson stresses the need for prayer and the Father’s loving concern. Jesus says “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.” He teaches His disciples to go to the Father in prayer. Bring to Him your needs, hopes, desires, and concerns. Do not keep them to yourself but bring them to the Father.
Jesus compares His Father to a human father caring for his children. “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?”
Our heavenly Father is so much greater than we, so His care for His children will be so much greater. “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?”
Jesus relates our requests in prayer to the answer of the Holy Spirit. Whatever we seek in prayer the answer will be associated with the Holy Spirit for the Spirit is God’s presence dwelling within us.
He never leaves us but is always present in our hearts. So that whatever we face or experience in life, God is there with us.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.