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“Lord, teach us to pray…” – the purpose and method of prayer.

Last week, I spoke about my experience on the Spiritual Year, my 2nd year in the seminary. The Spiritual Year was like a year-long retreat before one advanced to the program of graduate theological studies.  It was designed to form in us good spiritual habits and a deeper prayer life – that foundation necessary to discern God’s will and to sustain us for the work of ministry in preparation for ordination.  As I said last week, I don’t think I would have made it without that year dedicated to prayer.  What I realized soon after entering the seminary was that I didn’t know how to pray.  I had grown up saying prayers before meals and before going to bed, (and before tests in school), and as a family, we were always faithful to Sunday Mass, but prayer for me was either reciting memorized prayers or formal prayers or simply asking that things turn out well for me.  Nothing wrong with that, but how to pray as a way to grow in an intimate relationship with God, I had no clue.  I felt very much like those disciples who asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray…”  They ask this because they saw in John the Baptist and Jesus men who prayed who had something they did not.  The disciples, for the most part, would have been men who were practicing Jews who were schooled in the scriptures and were faithful to the prayers as outlined in the law, but they knew, after spending some time with Jesus, that there must be more to prayer than just “saying” the prayers.  We had a seminar on Lectio Divina, the ancient way to pray with the sacred scriptures, and after learning how to pray this way, my prayer life opened up.  The difference was learning what prayer was all about and praying with the right attitude.  We see the proper disposition of prayer explained by Jesus when he teaches the disciples the “Our Father” and follows it up with the other teachings on prayer we hear in today’s Gospel.  “When you pray, say: ‘Father’…”  Prayer is about entering into a relationship with God, our Father.  “Father” implies a personal, intimate, life-giving relationship.  Prayer is not about getting “stuff” but getting to know who God is.  And the key to getting what we truly need is persistence in prayer.  Why?  Because relationships take time to develop.  You only get to know someone through on-going conversations.  A relationship will not be deep or last for long if it is just about getting what you want from the other person, when you want to get it.  Conversation implies turning toward another and listening to the other which requires giving the other your attention.  Conversation is not possible if it is just about getting your point across.   Rather, to have a conversation, one has to be receptive or open to what the other has to say.  Likewise, and this is the point of the 2nd teaching, what God wants to give us is so much more than the good we could give ourselves.  What he wants to give us is the Holy Spirit – the bond of love between the Father and the Son.  The purpose of prayer is to enter into the communion of love between the Father and the Son – to know that God is love and to share in his divine life.  We will only persist in prayer if we are certain that what God wants for us is good.  Persistence requires humility – the humility to wait.  We get impatient when we think things must go my way or on my time – when we think we know what is best.  Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Ask, seek, knock.  Our prayer is ineffective or something we find frustrating (and then give up on) if we we are not asking, seeking, and knocking.  God knows what we want, but He wants us to ask, because prayer is about a relationship.  We have to be in touch with our need.  Prayer is not a negotiation.  We don’t approach God from a position of power but from a position of need.  Seeking, again, implies being in touch with our desire.  And we don’t seek something unless we expect to find it – that we know it is hidden somewhere.  When we are in touch with our deep desires, we become open to recognizing the Lord.  Jesus’ first question to the disciples was, “What are you looking for?”  And knocking implies waiting.  We knock at the door and have to wait for the other to answer.  It takes an other person to open the door.  We can’t open it ourselves.  Prayer implies a dependence on another.  Do we embrace these attitudes in our prayer?  That God who is good wants to give us good gifts and draw us into a deeper relationship with himself.  When we read the story of Abraham persisting in prayer with the Lord, he is not bargaining with God.  What does he have to offer?  He is just dust and ashes.  But in his persistence in prayer, he discovers that God is merciful beyond imagining.  May we learn to ask, to seek, and to knock in our prayer, and discover that God is a merciful and loving Father.

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