Why We Should Pray

Second in a series of reflections on the Liturgy of the Hours.

Last week we reflected on why we can even pray to begin with. Today, I thought we could reflect on two fundamental reasons for participating in prayer. They are:

  • that we are following Christ’s command to pray;
  • and we are following His example to pray.

When I was talking with a friend about my series of reflections on the Liturgy of the Hours she commented that, from what she knows, it seems against what Jesus taught. She referred to Christ’s words in Matthew: ‘But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[1] I pointed out to her that Christ made prayer an important part of our lives.

  • In Mark, His disciples, who had failed to drive a demon out, asked Him why they had failed – to which He replies ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.[2]
  • In Matthew, after Christ had entered Jerusalem, drove the money changers from the temple, and went back to Bethany He tells those around Him: ‘And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.[3]
  • Also in Matthew, we hear Christ teach His followers how to pray: ‘And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven…[4]
  • In Luke, Christ tells us: ‘But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.[5]
  • In John, we hear Jesus tell His disciples, and us: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.[6]
  • And of course, and to anser my friend’s comments, Christ tells His followers, and us: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.[7]

Jesus teaches, indeed, commands us to pray.  He is our God, we are His faithful; His mission is ours; His teachings are our marching orders.  Work and prayer is what He calls us to – ‘Ora et Labora’ as the Benedictines will tell us. Prayer is as much a part of our work as the work itself is. In fact, work without prayer runs the very great risk of not bearing good fruit. St. Josemaría Escrivá wrote: ‘First prayer; then, atonement; in the third place, very much “in third place” – action’[8] It is through prayer that we can build the holiness of our actions; because living a life with prayer in first place our actions become prayer themselves.

But Christ does more than just teach and command us – He lives this ‘ora et labora’ as well; and so as His faithful disciples we honor the teacher by living our lives as He lived.

Throughout the Gospels we see the place prayer had in His life. From the very beginning of His public ministry, His baptism, He witnessed to the importance of prayer as we hear in Gospel of St. Luke: ‘Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,[9]. He prayed right up to His last breath on the cross; ‘Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.[10] His whole life was prayer and work, He prayed constantly as the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours mentions:

The work of each day was closely bound up with his prayer, indeed flowed out from it: he would retire into the desert or into the hills to pray, rise very early or spend the night up to the fourth watch in prayer to God.[11]

Again from the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours:

The Gospels many times show us Christ at prayer: when his mission is revealed by the Father; before he calls the apostles; when he blesses God at the multiplication of the loaves; when he is transfigured on the mountain; when he heals the deaf-mute; when he raises Lazarus; before he asks for Peter’s confession of faith; when he teaches the disciples how to pray; when the disciples return from their mission; when he blesses the little children; when he prays for Peter.’[12]

We are right in thinking that he took part both in public prayers: in the synagogues, which he entered on the Sabbath “as his custom was;” in the temple, which he called a house of prayer; and in the private prayers that for devout Israelites were a daily practice. He used the traditional blessings of God at meals, as is expressly mentioned in connection with the multiplication of the loaves, the last supper and the meal at Emmaus. He also joined with the disciples in a hymn of praise.[13]

So when Christ teaches us to pray we should understand it with the importance that He gives it. It is paramount that our life is one of prayer. It is paramount because our Lord and God urges us to listen to Him in His teachings and follow Him in His example to us.  St. Athanasius wrote: ‘God became man so that man might become God.’[14] – prayer is a cornerstone in this interaction.

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All biblical quotes are from the Revised Standard Version
[1] MT 6:6
[2] MK 9:29
[3] MT 21:22
[4] MT 6:7-9
[5] LK 6:27-28
[6] JN 15:16
[7] MT 18:20
[8] The Way #82 St. Josemaría Escrivá
[9] LK 3:21
[10] LK 23:46
[11] General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (GILH) #4
[12] ibid
[13] ibid
[14] St. Athanasius (ca 298-373)

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Why We Can Pray

In today’s Gospel[1] we witness the reactions of Jesus’ disciples to His bread of life discourse; and in the first reading[2] we see Joshua meeting with the leadership of the tribes to discuss their allegiances – in both we see the people in dialog.  We see community interaction with each other and with their God. Prayer can be described as the communication of the faithful to He whom they have faith.  There are two basic types – personal and corporate. Personal prayer is just what it is called. With the corporate prayer we see community at work together.

Corporate prayer can be grouped into two broad classes: liturgical and non-liturgical. Liturgical prayer takes two forms – the Holy Mass is, of course, the highest.  It is the source and summit of our faith. Indeed our very existence on this journey needs to revolve around it because it is Jesus Himself. It is His action on Calvary, His sacrifice to the Father in which we too can offer our sacrifices as well. And of course His great gift of Himself to us in the Eucharist where we can be nourished and strengthened on our pilgrimage.

The other type of liturgical prayer is what we are participating in right now – the Liturgy of the Hours.  For the next few weeks, or so, I would like to delve into this great gift that also helps us in our journey; and not only us our actions in this liturgical prayer help the whole Universal Church, and the whole universe for that matter.

But maybe the best way to start reflecting on the Liturgy of the Hours is to reflect on a fundamental aspect of prayer. Why we can even pray to begin with? St. Josemaría Escrivá wrote: ‘The prayer of a Christian is never a monologue.[3] Prayer is not a one way action, it is dialog.  If there is no dialog then there is no relationship, at least a healthy relationship.  Prayer is the communication of a healthy relationship.  But still, how are we even able to enter into this dialogue with God?

Because God desires it and initiated it. There is no other way; if God didn’t want to communicate with us then we would be just ‘howling at the moon’ so to speak. But to our great joy – He desires it. And even more foundational, it is in His very nature to communicate. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his book the Feast of Faith: ‘The basic reason why man can speak with God arises from the fact that God himself is speech, Word.[4] This should be obvious when we consider that God is a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons in one God.  Within God there is dialog, the dialog of love.  The Son Himself is the eternal logos, the Word, and when He came among us He enable us to enter into an even more intimate dialog than mankind had prior to His incarnation because He embraced human speech and ‘made it a component of divine speech’.[5] In addition, with the indwelling of His Holy Spirit we are brought into an even more intimate participation of the divine dialog. St. Paul tells us this in his letter to the Romans: ‘the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.[6]

Brothers and sisters, let’s always remember that God has given us a great gift in being able to enter into dialog with Him, but even greater we have been given the ability to enter into His own divine dialog – we are an intimate part of His family and as family we are heard, our feelings and words are desired and cherished. For our part, we need to become active participants in this family discussion.

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[1] JN 6:60-69
[2] JOS 24:1-2A, 15-17, 18B
[3] St. Josemaría Escrivá – The Way #114
[4] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger – The Feast of Faith (pgs 25-26)
[5] ibid
[6] Romans 8:26 (RSV)

Dialog

One can make the point that a subcontex[1] of the First Reading and the Gospel today[2] concerns dialog; good dialog and useless, sinful dialog. We see Christ teaching those around Him the meaning of His mission – and this is obviously good dialog; while some of those listening whisper against Him to which He tells them ‘Do not murmur among yourselves.[3] – you guessed it, bad dialog. So with life so short the question we should be asking ourselves is what type of dialog should we be focused on?

In our first reading today we see the prophet Elijah retreating into the desert for safety and withdrawing from the mission God gave him. His life, since becoming a prophet, has been hard and at this point his life is in danger.  Most, if not all, of the prophets share the same life – outcast, threatened, fearful.  But Elijah does something else while in the desert – he talks with God. Not rote prayers but he actually talks, opens his heart. From the 1st Kings we heard: ‘he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.”[4]. In response God, through an angel, comforts and urges him on – tells him what he should and so Elijah does it.  Later (past the end of our gospel today) we hear Elijah, once again, talking with God in prayer: ‘”I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”[5].  Elijah is giving us a lesson in prayer – in dialog.  A lesson that each and every one of us should put into action.

First, it is very important for each of us to participate in the corporate prayer of the church.  It brings unity among us and strengthens our understanding of the ‘family of God’ as together we live, pray, and evangelize.  With this type of prayer we are comforted that we are not alone – we have others who are there to help.  Corporate prayer is essential in the life of a Christian and Holy Mother Church knows this.  She gives us the form of the Mass, which is the source and summit of our faith – therefore our lives.  She gives us the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours to help us extend the Mass throughout the day and enables us participate in the continual and universal prayer rising to heaven – thus sanctifying the day.  We have been given by our ancestors great communal prayers that we all know and use.  We have the Rosary in which we can pray using the life of Christ and seen through the eyes of His mother. God has even given us the community prayer par-excellence, the psalms, the prayers of Jesus Himself; which is the foundation of the Divine Office.  We have a robust and powerful arsenal of corporate prayers at our ready.  But God desires more.

Our Heavenly Father desires our communication, our dialog at all times.  He desires us to open our hearts and lift up our thoughts, fears, joys, ideas to Him just as we do with a close friend. St. Josemaría Escrivá writes:

You seek the friendship of those who, with their conversation and affection, with their company, help you to bear more easily the exile of this world – although sometimes those friends fail you. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

But how is it that you do not seek everyday, more eagerly, the company, the conversation of that great friend who will never fail you?[6]

Brothers and sisters, this dialog, our prayer life is what leads us and strengthens us because it brings us into dialog with He who does these for us.  Let’s take the example of Elijah, and all holy people, and train ourselves to be in a continual personal dialog with our best friend.  Let’s offer to He who created us and loves us all of our heart and our mind by dialoging with Him.  If it works for the saints it will work for us.  We will be amazed how the troubles of our lives will be lightened and the loneliness that is within us will be washed away.

It is not hard to start – just talk to our Heavenly Father.  Again, St. Josemaría Escrivá: ‘you don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God, and as soon as you have said, “Lord, I don’t know how to pray!” you can be sure you’ve already begun.[7] And don’t murmur.

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[1] 1 KGS 19:4-8
[2] JN 6:41-51
[3] JN 6:43
[4] 1 KGS 19:4b
[5] 1 KGS 19:10
[6] St. Josemaría Escrivá – The Way #88
[7] St. Josemaría Escrivá – The Way #90

Food for the Journey

Last week we heard the story of the multiplication of the fishes and loaves[1]. A powerful foreshadowing by Christ of what he was to offer us on Calvary – his body and blood – the Eucharist.

But this year the Collect[2] opened my eyes to another important lesson Christ was showing us.

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

This prayer struck me as a prayer from one on a journey, a wayfarer.  And, in fact, Christ’s multiplication of the loaves and fish was brought about because those many people had journeyed to find Him and now needed His help. I can’t help but think that Christ was showing us how to receive the Eucharist – as Viaticum.  Most people assign to the word Viaticum death; and indeed one definition of the word is ‘the Eucharist given to a person in danger of death’; but the reason Holy Mother Church uses the word is that, at its core, it means ‘provisions for a journey’ and death is part of our journey – so it is our nourishment on the journey. Christ is walking with us and He is guiding us; but just as important, He is giving us food for the journey.

Brothers and sisters, lets rejoice in the gifts that Christ gives us.  All of them allow us to continue our pilgrimage home to celebrate with Him and His(our) Father and the heavenly banquet.  But let’s look to the food of Christ as provisions on a journey instead of a banquet. For if we look at the Eucharist as provisions we will understand and follow our need to move forward, to journey, to expand our minds, hearts and charitable action; otherwise we will just sit at a table and do nothing to help those around us – including ourselves.

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[1] JN 6:1-15
[2] Collect from the Mass on the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time.