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The Glorious Mystery of Christian Prayer
Thursday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time
Jesus said to his disciples: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This is how you are to pray: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”
Opening Prayer: I come before you today, Lord, filled with worries, distractions, and concerns. So much noise surrounds me and disturbs me! I believe that you care about everything I care about and, most important, you care about me. And so I turn my attention to you, seeking to grow in wisdom and courage through hearing you speak to my heart. Blessed be your name, O Lord!
- The Mistakes of the Pagans: Jesus cautions us to avoid the kind of babbling prayer used by pagans. He was referring to the impersonal ritualistic practices so common in pre-Christian religions. Prayer for those religions wasn’t about a relationship with God. Prayer was simply a transaction with a higher power. To get what you wanted from the deity you were addressing, you had to make a perfect performance in your ritual of prayer and worship. If you happened to sneeze or cough in the middle of your prayer, you had to start again and go through the whole ritual flawlessly. The meaning of the many words and elaborate rituals was secondary; the simple performance of them was primary. Jesus warns us about this approach to our life of piety because our human nature has a tendency to fall into this routine and ritualism. We all have a tendency to descend into a transactional approach to God and to others. How is my prayer life? Do I just go through the motions when I go to Mass and confession? Do I “say my prayers” without really thinking about the deeper meaning behind the words? What is Jesus saying to me today?
- The Essence of Christian Prayer: The “Our Father” is the model for all Christian prayer. In fact, the entire fourth part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which beautifully explains the mystery of Christian prayer, is centered around a lengthy exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. In giving us this outline of prayer Jesus reveals what is unique about Christian prayer: It unfolds in a true, interpersonal relationship between the believer and God. This comes across in the first words, “Our Father…” God is not a distant deity for Christians, but a caring, approachable, wise father. He is goodness itself–as comes across in the second line, “who art in heaven”–uncorrupted by evil or ignorance. With the gift of this prayer, Jesus wants to emphasize first and foremost that he came to extend the hand of friendship to us. Jesus is the revelation of God’s desire to be in relationship with us, and prayer is a privileged arena for developing that relationship. In fact, the Catechism actually defines Christian prayer as a relationship in explaining how the fourth part of the Catechism fits in with the first three parts: “‘Great is the mystery of the faith!’ The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed (Part One) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three). This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer.” (CCC 2558)
- A Dangerous Obstacle: Because the essence of Christian prayer is relationship, any resentments or grudges wedged into our hearts will impede our prayer. We can’t approach God as our Father and expect to enjoy his friendship while at the same time harboring and feeding hostility to some of God’s children. This is why Jesus emphasizes forgiving others– doing our part to reconcile with them; we can’t control whether or not they do their part–as a condition for receiving forgiveness from the Lord. We are all in this together. When we became Christians we became members of God’s family, and that family is meant to include every person. If we condemn anyone by closing our hearts to them and refusing to forgive them, we are closing our hearts to God as well. Nothing impedes spiritual progress and the healing, fortifying work of God’s grace as much as unforgiveness. Even when people have severely hurt us and strictly speaking don’t deserve to be forgiven, unless we forgive them we never escape the power they have over us. Only by forgiving can we release ourselves from the grip of our pain and make room for God’s grace to heal us. Jesus doesn’t ask us to forget everything that happened, or to ignore the damage done, or even to feel warm and affectionate towards those who have hurt us. True forgiveness–forgiveness from the heart– doesn’t always transform our feelings right away. It is a decision to desire for the other person what God desires for them–that his name be hallowed and his Kingdom come in their lives–even if we cannot find the strength to do anything to help that happen except pray for them.
Conversing with Christ: Lord, I want to become an expert in prayer. I want to explore the Church’s treasury of wisdom about prayer. I want to learn to hear your voice in my heart and respond to that voice honestly, lovingly, with faith. Please help me keep my own heart clean, unchained by resentments and unworthy attachments, so that I can walk joyfully with you through the grace-filled adventure of every day you give me of life here on earth.
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will learn something new about the great mystery of Christian prayer, and sincerely forgive any person whom I have not yet forgiven.
For Further Reflection: The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer.
Written by Fr. John Bartunek, LC.
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