"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." 2 Thessalonians 5:16-18
In these two short, simple passages Paul captures the essense of what our primary responsibility as Christians is: to pray. Lent, provides us with the perfect opportunity to re-focus on the three pillars or "essentials" of living a repentant life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I will delve into on the other two in future postings, but for now I want to focus on the primary Christian activity that must exist before the power of God's love can enter into us.
Why We Pray
I tend to think of things in terms of analogies. This may be a crudely simple one, but I think it's a good starting point to launch into a short exploration of prayer. Prayer, and the grace that comes through it, might be thought of as kind of like electricity, we like a computer, and God like the electrical "grid." Bear with me on this one. Without a connection to the grid - by being plugged into it - a computer (or, for that matter, any other electrical device) is utterly useless. Sure a laptop might run on batter power for a short time, but to use it's full potential, it will have to be plugged in and recharged frequently, and it functions best when plugged in all the time. Without the electrical power it needs from the computer - as grace conferred through prayer - it is nothing more than a useless collection of parts.
We as creatures, despite the fact that we would often like to think of ourselves as creators, are much the same way. Without frequent "plug-ins" to the person of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit that unites Him in love with the Father, we lose our connection to the only power that can really sustain and satisfy us, the power of God. Ultimately, we become nothing but empty, perishing shells of flesh, who in the end will stand before the Lord convicted by hands and hearts empty of faith and its fruits. Prayer is our "lifeline" to the Father through Christ, that lifts us out of the despair of our frail, passing physical existence into relationship with the Eternal One.
The Holy Father explains it much more eloquently in Chapter Five of Jesus of Nazareth, in which he focuses on how Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord's Prayer (cf. Matthew 6:9-13):
The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray. The more prayer is the foundation that upholds our entire existence, the more we will become men of peace. The more we can bear pain, the more we will be able to understand others and open ourselves to them. This orientation pervasively shaping our whole consciousness, this silent presence of God at the heart of our thinking, or meditating, and our being, is what we mean by "prayer without ceasing." (p. 129-130).How We Pray
I have to preface by saying that none of us knows how to pray on our own. Because of our sin, we are too far removed from God and he is so infinitely far above us as to be inaccessible. Recognizing that we were so utterly lost and without hope in this condition, God himself reestablished the "lifeline," if you will, by sending his own Son to become one of us and both satisfy the Father’s justice and extend his mercy by dying on the Cross. Because he was like us in all things except sin, he maintained that intimate face-to-face relationship with the Father that we all long for and will experience if we are conformed to him. From that supernatural relationship, he was able to teach us to pray, even going so far as to give us the words to use:
Our Father in heaven,Christ's model of prayer demonstrated explicitly the four stages or priorities, if you will, of how we are to pray:
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we also forgive our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
But rescue us from the evil one.
1. Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name. First, we are to put ourselves in the presence of the Lord. By giving us these words, Christ both taught us and shared with us the privilege that is his alone: he allowed us to join him in calling on God as Father, a Father who cares so deeply about us that he was willing to send his only Son to die so that we might be reconciled to him. In the same breath, however, we ackowledge the holiness and "otherness" of Him who is hallowed, who is so far above us that we cannot comprehend him and who is worthy of all praise.
2. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. After placing ourselves humbly and intimately into his presence, we rightly acknowledge his sovereignty in all things, places, and times, and pray for the coming of his eternal Kingdom into our the here-and-now. Without acknowledging that sovereignty--that he, not us, makes the rules and has the final say in all things--we cannot be properly disposed to offer up the petitions for what we need to fulfill our role in the coming of the kingdom.
3. Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our debts, As we also forgive our debtors. As we prostrate ourselves before the throne of grace and lift our hands in praise to him, we also ask in return only what we need to accomplish the task for which he created us: First, bread for our journey, which encompasses both our physical needs for the day and more importantly the spiritual, Eucharistic bread that sustains, strengthens, and conforms us into the likeness of the Son in whose name we pray. Second, we ask for the grace to forgive as we have been forgiven, to leave the bitterness and vengeance that we would otherwise carry around with us at the foot of the cross, because in carrying them we remain chained to our own sins and convicted by our own unforgiveness and are not free to take up the saving yoke of Christ.
4. And do not bring us to the time of trial, But rescue us from the evil one. This plea acknowledges what is perhaps our deepest fear, of being found guilty in the end and condemned and ultimately consumed by evil. It realizes in a concrete confession the reality that, despite every lie the evil one will try to sell us, in the end we cannot save ourselves. If we try, we have already placed one foot inside the gate of hell. That may sound grim, but it's the truth and the very possibility, if we contemplate it, should rock us to our core. So it leads us as sinners to beg at the feet of him who has the power to save us. He doesn't just have the power; he has already accomplished it if we only choose to turn toward him and acknowledge our faults and failures.
Sighs Too Deep for Words
Christ promised that after he had ascended to his heavenly throne, he would send the Spirit that "helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very same Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Matthew 8:26). And so he has made good on his promise. The Holy Spirit, the personification of the intimate relationship between Father and Son, has now come to dwell with us and in us, and to draw us also into the relationship that humans, before Christ, were barred from entering. By praying humbly and sincerely, we reach through the torn temple veil and open ourselves to be drawn into the bond of a loving relationship from which "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nordepth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us" (Romans 8:38-39).