I am lucky to have been able to spend much of my holiday in a very prayerful place — a place which, while busy with guests, has a beautiful and cool chapel, where one can retreat to away from the heat of the terrace. Having visited there many times, mostly as a seminarian, I find it a place that inspires prayer … In fact, when one gets to relax, one also finds it easier to pray … one is drawn to prayer, the anxieties of daily life are lifted a bit, and rising up in one’s heart is the innate desire to commune with God.
We embark today on the 4th and final part of the Catechism, the section on Prayer. Our faith is incomplete without prayer: we have the basic content of our faith in the Creed (part I), our worship in the sacraments (Part II) and our moral behaviour as given us in the Commandments (Part III) … but if we have not prayer, then the other three are all going to struggle … because prayer is the powerhouse of the others. Prayer is the fuel that ignites faith and keeps it alight and burning. Prayer is the encouragement we need to celebrate our love for God, and exercise love to our neighbour. Prayer is, in a word, the very relationship we have with God. And so it is very important that we pay as much attention to this final section of the Catechism as we have to the previous parts. The section will consider the pattern of all prayer, the Our Father — the prayer the Lord Jesus himself gave us — so as to develop this theme … but first we must make some preliminary remarks.
The first is that prayer is not just some one-sided appeal of ourselves to God, a constant cry to a God who may or may not be attentive. The Catechism describes prayer as “an action of God and man.” Yes, man is in search of God: the heart of each man aches with that innate desire to be in communication with our Maker — and so, in all religions, man reaches out to know and be in prayer to God … But this is not all prayer is; prayer is also God-sided … not just one-sided, on man’s side, but God-sided too. God does not remain silent in the face of His human creation’s desire for communication. God in fact takes the initiative: God calls man first, and instigates a relationship with humanity that will last to the end of time, and into eternity. Of course, the fullness of that relationship is in Christ: Our Lord Jesus manifests the perfect prayer, and calls us into that prayer, but there is much also that we can learn, first, from the experience of our ancestors’ prayers in the Old Testament too.
In Genesis, before the Fall, man is said to have “walked and talked with God in the cool of the evening”: it is an image of a perfect relationship, in which man lets His God and Maker into his life entirely. ‘Man walked with God,’ — it is the nature of man that he desires to know His Lord … and this is the basis of prayer in all religions; man desiring a relationship with the One who made him and knows him.
But despite our fall from grace, our decision as a race to rebel and not to continue in that perfect relationship, yet God is not angry or dismissive. He wants to rebuild that relationship, and He reaches out to the people of Israel, and builds them up as a people who would know His name: as a people of prayer. Hence the wonderful covenants, with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses … increasingly deep and committed relationships with Israel, in which God calls more insistently to them, and they little by little, and not always steadily, draw closer to Him. Noah, Abraham, Moses, … then later on the kings, David and Solomon, exercise that leadership of prayer. Moses is said to have conversed long and often with God, on the mountain, and in the Tent of Meeting, hearing the word of God, mediating for the people, pleading for forgiveness in times of apostasy. Moses spoke with God “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” With this deep relationship at its heart, Israel’s faith was built up, for they heard the word of God and were urged to practise it.
In due course, Israel’s prayer also had a special home, in the Temple planned by King David and constructed by his son, King Solomon … and with this new church erected, Solomon utters one of the most sublime prayers in the Old Testament. Let me quote you just a piece of it:
When Solomon had finished offering this whole prayer and entreaty, he rose from where he was kneeling with hands stretched out towards heaven before the altar of the LORD, and stood erect. And in a loud voice he blessed the whole assembly of Israel. “Blessed be the LORD,” he said “who has granted rest to his people Israel, keeping all his promises; of all the promises of good that he made through Moses his servant, not one has failed. May the LORD our God be with us, as he was with our ancestors; may he never desert us or cast us off. May he turn our hearts towards him so that we may follow all his ways and keep the commandments, and laws, and ordinances he gave to our ancestors. May these words of mine, of my entreaty before the LORD, be present with the LORD our God day and night, that he may uphold the cause of his servant and the cause of Israel his people, as each day requires, so that all the peoples of the earth may come to know that the LORD is God indeed, and that there is no other.” (1Kings 8: 52–60)
The prophets of Israel often had to remind Israel of this, the heart of prayer: that it was not made up of external practices as such, such as the Temple sacrifices, but that, as in Solomon’s prayer, it was truly a devout prayer of the heart. No relationship can be wholly composed of the externals, even fancy or lavish demonstrations, if there is not a real touching of the heart. Prayer is the same, and many in Israel often fell into the trap of an external practice: as Jesus says, “these people honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Finally, we must mention the book of Psalms, the most glorious of the prayers of the Old Testament. Page after page of worship and praise, lament and cry for forgiveness, desire for healing and thanksgiving. Maybe we pass the psalm by all too quickly at Mass, but they form a great part, still, of Christian prayer, especially in the Morning and Evening Prayer of the Church. They are truly the most beautiful prayers — hymns — of Israel, that transcend time and place, and are fitting words of prayer for each and every age. Maybe each one of us has his or her favourite lines from the Psalms, but one of my favourite verses is the one I inscribed on my prayer card when I was ordained … and with these words I end this first homily on prayer in the Catechism:
I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel // Who even at night directs my heart // I keep the Lord ever in my sight // Since He is at my right hand, I shall stand firm. (Ps 15)