Prayer is not magic. We cannot expect to receive whatever we want from God just because we ask. If this were so, I think many of us would be praying hard to win the lottery! No, praying to win the lottery wouldn’t make us rich. But praying for what we need and what is good for us opens us to God’s presence, helps us gain God’s perspective on our lives, and challenges us to think broader than our immediate needs. Prayer always includes a discernment to what God wants for us, not simply what we want for ourselves.
Jesus did not just teach the disciples simply to say words in prayer. Oh yes, He gave them the words to what we now know as the “Lord’s Prayer or Our Father.” Beyond the words, though, He taught His disciples what prayer truly is: seeking God’s presence and what God wants for us. And perhaps this is the most difficult thing about prayer. Instead of always praying for and fulfilling our own shortsighted needs (although sometimes this is perfectly legitimate, necessary, and good prayer!), authentic prayer leads us to know God’s will for us, to receive the Holy Spirit, and to open us in new ways to God’s goodness. Authentic prayer draws us out of ourselves toward the God who wishes all good for us and gives us all we need to grow in our relationship with God and with one another.
In this weekend’s Gospel, Jesus instills confidence in His disciples that they will receive from God that for which they pray. He teaches them (and us) to pray for daily needs: the food we need to live, the forgiveness we need to grow in our relationships, the protection we need to remain faithful. Because of what we have already received (our daily needs), we are certain that God will give even more to those who ask: the Holy Spirit, a share in the plenitude of God’s very life. What a gift! Why wouldn’t we ask for it?
Most of us first learned to pray by saying prayers – meal prayers, bedtime prayer, the Guardian Angel prayer, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary. This is a good beginning because it gives us an anchor. It gives us the words to get started. As we grow older and we come to know God better, however, there is always the risk that these “memorized prayers,” prayers known by heart and so familiar to us, might become rote. We could end up just “saying prayers.” Some people are proud of the fact that they say three (3) rosaries or more a day. That may be good. Or it may not be good, if all they are doing is rattling through words.
The kind of prayer Jesus taught is prayer from the heart, a prayer of communion, a prayer of attentiveness to the divine Presence, a prayer seeking God’s will. We cannot ask or seek or find if we are not sure of the presence of the Other. Praying – even saying familiar and much-loved, memorized prayers – must bring us to divine encounter and to listen to God’s will for us. Prayer is the communion of Person with person. It is the utterance of spirit to Spirit … of life to Life.
Prayer cannot be limited to set times, although that is necessary, too. The Gospel says that Jesus was “praying in a certain place.” We know that the Mount of Olives was one of His favorite places for prayer. Jesus had set times for prayer: before undertaking a mission, during ministry, or early in the morning. Jesus was also constantly in communion with His Father. This is the “always” of prayer. This is what we really wish to emulate: communion with God as abiding presence. Lord, teach us to pray!
May Saint Michael the Archangel defend, guide, protect, and intercede for us always!