When I pray the fourth Luminous Mystery each Thursday I always offer it for my enemies - both that they may be changed and that I may be changed. The transformation I pray for is that I, and they, may become more like Christ, the source and goal of all change.
Prayer shows us the need for this change and initiates within us a longing for it to take place. This desire, this longing to be transformed is already a huge step in itself. How many of us cannot even see our need for change let alone have a desire for it? Prayer opens our eyes and lets us see others, and ourselves as they, and we, really are. What an enormous grace!
Many years ago I had the privilege of doing a retreat directed by Sr Briege McKenna OSC and she told me she had this image of me in a large hall talking and laughing with lots of people and Jesus was standing against one of the walls patiently waiting for me to finish. I was having great fun. Finally he came over and took my elbow and led me to a small prayer room where I could be with him in prayer.
The readings this week reminded me of these short but powerful moments with Sr Briege. In the first reading the Lord takes Abraham outside - and in the Gospel Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up the mountain. It's no accident that people often use the phrase surrender to prayer. When we don't go to prayer when we should we are shaking our elbow free and telling the Lord - No! Not now! - and he goes back to the wall to wait patiently.
Whether we realise it or not, every moment of prayer is a response to his personal invitation. It is always God who says 'Come. I want to spend some time with you.'
Why then are we often so slow to surrender? Is it the cold night air which frightens us, or perhaps the climb up the mountain? Certainly prayer always requires a readiness to leave behind our favourite preoccupations and comforts and enter into another world, a world of darkness and faith. St Teresa of Avila refers to prayer as a labour. Sometimes we have to actually and painfully tear ourselves away from what we are doing in order to enter that graced time and place called prayer and occasionally, when we forget what prayer is, we would prefer to be anywhere else rather than at prayer. It is said St Teresa sometimes used to shake her hourglass to make the sand go more quickly.
Prayer is so central, so essential to transformation that is is worth doing badly. Indeed, I believe that it is especially at moments when we find prayer impossibly challenging, dry, unsatisfying and seemingly a waste of time that the greatest transformations are quietly occurring. Peter didn't do all too well on the mountain - fighting sleep and babbling incoherently - but he went, and he stayed awake, and he saw.
This leads me to consider another aspect of prayer which is that in prayer we get to see things we would never see otherwise; God shows us things - about himself, about life, about death, about ourselves.
God took Abraham outside into the dark to show him the stars and make him a promise; Jesus took his three Apostles up the mountain to show them himself and the destiny he was journeying towards. Yet this is in no way a summary of what happened either to Abraham or to the Apostles. Every experience of God, every moment consciously spent in his presence, has reverberations in our life which we will only appreciate in the hereafter. This is because real prayer is never just a God-and-me experience. Another way of saying this is that prayer should always be scriptural.
At first this may be a rather perplexing statement to come to grips with but look at Jesus going up to the mountain to pray to his Father. Suddenly Moses and Elijah appear! Where have they come from? Why are they here? What is going on?
Moses represents the Law, Elijah the prophets. They appear in Jesus' prayer because they are part of the same history of salvation, part of the same story, part of the same prayer as Jesus is making.
We are all part of that prayer - a story much larger than the story of our own life. Peter, James and John found themselves suddenly confronted by the representatives of the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament, and, whether they realised it at that moment or not, they were the representatives of the New Testament.
This moment of Jesus' intimate communion with the Father in prayer is revealed as prayer set in a rich, unfolding, universal context which embraces all time, all space, and all creatures. In this way the prayer of Jesus offers a paradigm for all mature prayer; it should be scriptural.
Finally, prayer opens us to the future. Abraham had little idea of what lay ahead of him when God spoke his promise. Similarly, Peter, James and John were perplexed and wisely kept silence when the cloud lifted and they were again alone with the Lord. Nevertheless, their experiences inserted into their hearts a confidence and a courage in God which would see them through the many difficulties which lay ahead. Prayer is like that - a meeting with God which prepares us for the next step of our journey.