One day someone should compile a collection of photos of people at prayer; not the fake ones we see in some religious books but real ones of real people really praying.
Something happens to a person when they are at prayer – their whole demeanour changes – something magical, which can’t be counterfeited. The mere sight of someone at prayer touches the deepest part of us and we can’t help but be drawn.
I sat once in a church behind an elderly American monk. He came in and knelt, his hands folded on the pew in front of him, he bowed his head slightly, closed his eyes and didn’t stir a muscle for the next twenty minutes. Around him there seemed to be an atmospheric change. It was as though we were kneeling in a church in Indiana and he was kneeling before the throne of God. I, for one, could not take my eyes off him.
What would it have been like to see Jesus at prayer? It was not unusual for him to pray alone in the presence of his disciples. Today we are told: Once Jesus was in a certain place, praying, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray …'
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the disciples sitting all around on the grass, on a rock, on a fallen tree – just watching the Lord at prayer. It must have been a profoundly moving experience.
For us, prayer is a graced moment when we stop what we’re doing, we put aside the things that preoccupy us and, from deep within ourselves, we reach out for God. It is a moment of communion with God in which our faith embraces him, and we surrender ourselves to him.
What prayer was for Jesus we cannot really know. His relationship with the Father was profoundly different from ours. That’s why Jesus never at any time spoke of ‘our’ Father. He always spoke of his Father or your Father. That is also why he said, in answer to the disciple’s request: Say this when you pray … . Jesus could say ‘my Father’ in a way that we never could.
At any rate the disciples were so deeply moved that when he finished they asked him: Teach us to pray. They wanted not only to pray, they wanted to learn to pray well. The first lesson here for you and me is clear – the first requirement for real prayer is to want to pray – desire.
The second lesson is equally apparent – our prayer must be within the prayer of Jesus, within the unfolding plan of God.
We constantly have to ask ourselves, ‘What does my prayer have to do with the concerns of God and the coming of his kingdom?’ To put it more simply: What does my prayer have to do with God?
You may find this notion a little surprising, even puzzling, but it is possible for us to pray in such a way that our prayer has little or nothing to do with God. Without realising it we can become so self-absorbed that our horizons shrink and we become entirely focussed on our own anxieties and concerns. Then God becomes merely a supermarket, a hospital, or a welfare agency, the handy repository of those things we think we need.
Our prayer, even when we do make legitimate petitions, should express our worship and love of God and a desire that, above all, his kingdom should come because, sadly, it is possible for our prayer to overlook the prerogatives of God and actually lead us away from his kingdom. That is why Jesus says – Say this when you pray: Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come.
This is the proper starting point for all prayer because this was always the starting point for Jesus. This is the spiritual light which must cast its radiance on all our petitions.
This revealing radiance will tell us if our prayer has to do with the kingdom of God, our journey to holiness, our becoming like Jesus, or if it is just a collection of impertinent requests for impossible exemptions from the human condition. This kind of prayer is not ‘within the prayer of Jesus’. Rather it is a rebuke to God which suggests that God has somehow made a mistake and we have to ask him to fix it.
So now we can see the importance of the 'Our Father'. The kingdom of God is coming; it is close at hand. Our most urgent task, more important than our house, our work, our health, is to seek the kingdom in our lives and to be ready for its final arrival.
Let’s pray to the Father for our daily bread. He knows what we need before we ask him. Let’s forgive the sins of those we need to forgive and ask God’s pardon for our own. Let’s ask God’s grace to overcome the many temptations which seek to turn us aside from the right road. Let's ask God to deliver us from every evil.
Constant readiness requires constant prayer but always the kind of prayer that harmonises with the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.