Homily no. 47 – ‘Our Father (II)’ (CCC 2803–2827)

English Our Father (Mt. Olives)_2150

English Our Father (Mt. Olives)_2150 (Photo credit: hoyasmeg)

Last Sunday we began our thinking about the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father.  We thought about the meaning and import of the opening words, “Our Father, who art in heaven …”  Our review of the Our Father is to help us in our own personal prayer … how should we be praying?

Well, the subsequent parts of the Our Father divide into 7 petitions … the first three are, as it were, focussing our hearts on God Himself; the last four are asking for things for ourselves.  So, the first three highlight God: “Thy Name … Thy Kingdom … Thy Will …”

Catechism 2804 The first series of petitions carries us toward Him, for His own sake: Thy name, Thy kingdom, Thy will!  It is characteristic of love to think first of the one whom we love.  In none of the three petitions do we mention ourselves; the burning desire, even anguish, of the beloved Son for his Father’s glory seizes us: “hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

This is important.  Our prayer is not first and foremost about our own demands or needs.  Our first occupation in prayer is simply in praising God for His being God.  Only after these first three petitions do we consider our own needs: “Give us … Forgive us … Lead us not … Deliver us …”  But our first thought is to refer ourselves to God’s gifts to us, to measure ourselves up to His intentions: the revelation of His Holy Name; the coming of His Holy Kingdom; the obeying of His Holy Will.

(I)           “Hallowed be Thy Name,” we say first.  Now, God’s name is always holy, so what we in fact mean by this is: “may Your Name be held holy.”  This ties in with our keeping the 2nd commandment, doesn’t it? — “Do not take the Name of the Lord in vain.”  God in His love and holiness has gradually revealed Himself to us.  We are privileged to live in this period of history (these last 4000 yrs) when God has revealed Himself more fully, starting with Abraham, going on to Moses (to whom He revealed the Sacred Name, “I Am Who Am”), and completed in the fullness of Revelation in our Lord Jesus, Son of God.  We should pray in thanksgiving for knowing and receiving God’s holy Gospel, and strive to honour and spread devotion to His Holy Name.  Not only do we want to keep holy God’s Name ourselves, but we would wish others — our family and our friends, quite apart from all humanity — to know and love God.

(II)        “Thy Kingdom come,” we then pray.  We wish to be the agents of Our Lord’s desire to build up His kingdom “on earth as in heaven.”  Jesus preached the Kingdom continuously, inviting us to be with Him in this new world, the Church, where His dominion reigns.  We know that the Kingdom will never be completed here on earth, and that we long for the Kingdom of heaven.  Yet, Jesus urges to pray for, and to work for, the Kingdom also on earth: to make this world sing with the voices and values of Jesus.  We are not to wait idly in this life, simply sitting back and awaiting the next life: that’s like hiding the talent in the ground (in Jesus’s parable).  Though we long for the fulfilling of the promised Kingdom in the life to come, yet we must strive to build God’s Kingdom of belief, justice and peace here on earth.  We must spend our lives here trying to mirror heaven here on earth.  We should be praying that the Lord give us many opportunities to spread the Kingdom.

(III)      “Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Our whole life should be spent in trying to do only what is God’s Will for us.  We cannot have happiness in this life if we are struggling against, or going against, God’s holy Will for us.  He has a plan and a vocation for each one of us: we pray that we may know — and courageously do — that Will.  We think of those moments in Scripture when there is a radical choice to do God’s Will.  Our Lady, at the Annunciation, says, “Be it done unto me according to thy Word.”  And, more grittily, in His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, Our Lord Jesus Himself totally offers in sacrifice His human will to the Father: “nevertheless, not My Will, but Thine, be done.”

This, then is the basis of good and wholesome prayer for us: (i) to honour and spread His Holy Name; (ii) to build up His Kingdom, His Church, and to invite others in; (iii) to be devoted to doing His Will even when it is hard, knowing that it will lead to our happiness.  Each of these prayers acknowledges that we are pilgrims, hoping for heaven, the perfection of God’s Kingdom, but determined to use well this life He has granted us on earth.  Just these few words of the Our Father help us to be focussed on our great Christian task as His people.

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Homily no. 46 – ‘Our Father (I)’ (CCC 2759–2802)

Text of "Our Father" prayer with Tri...

Text of “Our Father” prayer with Trinity in central column (God the Father, dove of the Holy Spirit, Jesus) and Biblical and symbolic scenes in left and right columns. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend of mine who is in her 40s has always been touched and moved by the fact that the first thing she learnt to recite as a very little girl was the Our Father … It is a happy thing to think that one’s first words, one’s first memorized piece, as a child, should be the Lord’s Prayer.  It is, as is often said, the ‘pattern of all prayer,’ since it is the prayer Jesus Himself taught us.  In these final five Sundays of our journey through the Catechism, we shall take a look at this beautiful prayer, so as to learn more about all our prayer.

At Mass we have that wonderful introduction to the Our Father which ends, “… we dare to say …”  — “At the Saviour’s command, and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say …”  It is indeed audacious of us to call God ‘our Father,’ and we only dare do it because Our Lord Jesus has taught us to.  It marks a whole new way of praying and relating to God.  This is not a way that Israel dared address God, not usually anyway, but it is the way Our Lord has taught us: “formed by divine teaching.”  We must never forget that the beauty of this prayer comes from its having been given us by God: it is God the Son’s own prayer to God the Father.  It is truly unique and a precious part of our heritage.  Jesus has taught us so much in this prayer.  Yet He is not just giving us some words to say.  When the apostles requested of Him that He teach them to pray, this is what He taught them.  Not a long, involved and complicated prayer … but a simple one … Not just a prayer solely consisting of ‘asking,’ but a prayer that begins with adoration and praise … Our Lord, let’s not forget, gives not only these words, but the gift of the Spirit, and both have to be there in the life of the Christian.  We can recite words all we like, but if our heart is not in them, if they are rattled off like a chore, then what spiritual benefit is there?  When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we should have in mind, at least implicitly, the desire for union with God in Christ and His Spirit.  We should be mindful that we are praying to the Father with the Son, in the words of the Son, united with the Son.  When we pray to the Father in these words, as it were, the Father hears His Son praying, our voices united with His, in this perfect prayer.

In the Mass, if you notice, the Our Father has a privileged place.  It lies between the Eucharistic Prayer — when Our Lord is made present on the altar under the appearances of bread and wine, in the Blessed Sacrament, His Body & Blood — and the Rite of Holy Communion, when we may receive Him as the food and medicine of our souls.  A blessed moment of prayer, indeed.  And it is at that moment in the presence of Jesus, truly present, and about to be consumed, that we raise our voices in the ‘Our Father,’  I like to think, “With Our Lord Jesus present here with us, let us pray in the words He Himself has taught us.”  Jesus is here on the altar … and with Him here with us, so we pray: we pray with Him at the heart of our community, the sacrificed Lord, in offering to the Father.

We must note that we have been taught to say, “Our” Father — not “my” Father … We pray as the community of Christ’s faithful.  It proves to us that Jesus’s intention is that we relate to the Father as the family of the Church.  Of course there are many times that we pray the ‘Our Father’ alone, as individuals, but it points to the community of faith, the assembly of the Church.  In fact, as the Church, in the official prayers of Church, we pray the ‘Our Father’ at least 3 times a day: at Morning Prayer, at Mass, and at Evening Prayer; quite apart from any other recitation and/or rosary we may pray.  We must also not that the ‘Our Father’ is a prayer common to all Christians … it is part of what we share, and not what divides us.  And in fact, calling God ‘Our Father’ also reminds us that God is the father of all humanity: so when we pray that Our Father we are also appealing to Him that He be seen as the Father of all; that all people may know that they are called to salvation in Christ, and to know the Father.

Our powerful prayer recognises that God is in heaven, that place of blessedness to which he calls us.  His heaven is not far away, it is close to those who love Him and do not turn their backs on Him.  Having acknowledged God as “our Father in heaven,” then we address to Him to seven parts of the Our Father, in praise and petition, which we shall start to look at next week …

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Homily no. 45 – ‘The ‘Battle’ of Prayer’ (CCC 2725–2758)

Prayer

Prayer (Photo credit: ahnfire73)

Tackling this question of prayer, as we have been, these last few weeks, in our journey through the Catechism, we must acknowledge, as the Church does, that prayer is not always easy.  We get distracted; we get discouraged; we can be lazy and find all sorts of things to do instead of praying.  All of us, I am sure, will struggle with this at times; in fact, most of us will struggle with this always, I dare say.  The saints, too, struggled with prayer, and had times of darkness when they felt the Lord was distant from them, and it was hard for them to pray.  The writings even of great giants of prayer such as Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Avila, or Mother Teresa in our own day, state clearly that they had their times of dryness in prayer.  So, when we struggle with prayer, we are not alone.

We must first acknowledge it would be the devil’s very wish to discourage us from prayer.  Satan tries to stop us praying … this is true … He doesn’t want us to spend time with God.  He is jealous and disruptive; he wants us to forget to talk to God.  He wants us to despair of prayer, so as to distance us from God.  Prayer is our relationship with God; if we feed that relationship with precious time spent in prayer with God, then we can grow in holiness; if we grow lazy, allowing our distractions to grow into despair in prayer, and putting regular prayer out of our life, then Satan has had his way, and our life will suffer as our living relationship with God withers.

But it can be hard, both fighting the distractions and the dryness, conquering our laziness, our temptation to fit in something else instead of prayer: often, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  Yet, we need to recover our sense of what is important in life, and rate our prayer life as a key constituent of our daily life.  We need to pay attention to the reality of our life: that God is the author of our life, and the One to whom we owe thanksgiving and devotion.  We can’t deprive our lives of prayer without depriving our lives of the very water of spiritual life.  It is important that we make a reflection on where our prayer life is, at this time.  Is it a prayer life at all, is it static, is it slipping back?  Do I pray each day?  If not, why not?  What is my excuse?  No time?  No place?  No inclination?  Most of us, I am sure, are conscious of those times when we fully intend to put some time for prayer, but then let it get swallowed up by other things, often far less important!  So, the key ingredient is to persevere!  To be there!  To place ourselves in the way for prayer: to put ourselves in a place of no distraction, for some quiet, and even if it not for very long, to have that protected space for time with Our Lord.  Above, all, we must persevere!  Faithfulness to prayer is faithfulness to God!

Often, of course, it is hard to do so at home, though we can help create such opportunities by deciding when could be good in our daily routine to set aside some time, even if it’s 10 mins, for prayer.  Far easier, often, is the opportunity created by popping in to the church when we are passing.  If I were you, I would make it a rule: if you come and park your car here, whatever time or day of the week, if the church is open, pop in for a visit to Our Lord.  You can simply sit and be quiet and pray in your own words; prayer does not have to be a recitation of formal prayers, though there is an important place also for the Rosary and other formal prayers.  Be creative: make a prayer space at home, a ‘holy corner’ where there may be a crucifix, a statue of Our Lady, an icon perhaps … use such things to prompt you to prayer.  And of course, also, the Scriptures are a great way to begin one’s prayer.  Taking just a few verses of the Gospel, or of the psalms, or a few lines of St Paul … and then spending a few minutes reflecting on them, this can be an ideal way to lead into prayer.  Only you can make the decision as to when’s the best time to pray.  I hope that last weekend’s diocesan handout got you thinking about prayer.  Next week, I’ll hope to provide another helpful (parish) handout on prayer which I will produce just for you!

Finally, to put in to practice some of what I have outlined, I am starting a new little prayer group, Fri evenings (monthly) at 7.30pm in Lady Chapel, for those who can get to nothing in daytime weekdays.  A simple hour of prayerful reading of Scripture and opening our heart to the Lord for Him to speak to us in the day-to-day of our life.  No need to bring anything, just yourselves.  Won’t be overly formal, nor heavy … and will hopefully give some of you the chance to set aside some time for prayer that you might well not otherwise do.  So, please think of coming and helping get your prayer life revitalized.  Friday, 7.30, in the Lady Chapel.

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Homily no. 44 – ‘Prayer to the Saints’ (CCC 2683–2724)

all-saints[Sermon given at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Malacca, Malaysia.  I’ve been giving a special emphasis in this ‘Year of Faith’ to preaching on the Catechism from cover to cover, and so even though this weekend I am 9,000 miles from my parish, I’d like to continue my cycle of reflections on the Catechism.  We have reached Part IV of the Catechism, the part devoted to Prayer.]

Today, the 8th September, is the feast of the Birthday of Our Lady, and whilst the Sunday liturgy (23rd Sunday) takes precedence over the feast, nevertheless we can still remember her feastday with affection today.  Prayer to the Saints like Our Lady may well be poorly understood by our non-Catholic brothers and sisters.  Surely (they might say), only God is the true God; only God can be prayed to?  Yes, this is true … Only God is the Lord.  We do not treat the saints in any way as gods and goddesses, or as replacements for God, or with the honour due to God alone.  This has to be clear.

Saints are men and women like you or me, human beings, creatures, originally sinners (except in Our Lady’s case), who have become saints through a holiness of life.  They show us it is possible to live a good, holy, Christian life, winning through the exile and challenges of this world and gaining the glory of heaven.  But we do not confuse the saints in glory for God whose glory heaven itself is.

So, when we say we pray ‘to’ the saints, what is it, in fact, that we mean?  In what way does this differ from prayer ‘to’ God?  Well, when we pray ‘to’ the saints, what we really mean is that we ask them to pray ‘for’ us.  We ask for their prayers; we ask for their intercession.  Let me quote to you a paragraph of the Catechism:

2683  The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today.  They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth.  When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were “put in charge of many things.”  Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan.  We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.

— i.e. we ask them to pray for us, from their place in heaven.

So, why?  Why do we do this?  Why do we ask their prayers.  Why not just ask God?  Well, if you think about it, it is profoundly human to pray together; that’s what the Church is.  Saints are the “Church triumphant”: the Church in heaven, our brothers and sisters in glory.  Is we are in need, are we not likely to ask someone else to pray for us?  Yes, surely we are.  And, are we not more likely to ask someone to pray for us whom we consider is a person close to God, a person of prayer?  Yes, I’m sure we are.  The clear and logical extension of this attitude, then, is to invoke the prayers of the saints — the most holy, most blessed of our race, who are already with God in heaven.

In heaven, Our Lady has the highest place amongst the saints; we invoke her as ‘Queen of Heaven.’  She is the greatest of saints not because we propose her to be, but because God chose her to be!  She is God’s choice, not ours, and we cannot un-choose her!  She is ‘Mother of God,’ chosen of all women in all history, by God, to bear the incarnate Son, Jesus.  Our Lady is the ‘Immaculate Conception,’ free of all sin.  She was assumed into heaven body and soul, and has made numerous apparitions over the centuries in different parts of the world.  No wonder, then, we celebrate her feasts (like today) and invoke her most powerful prayers.  Think, for example, of the event at Cana, at the wedding feast: her intercession with Jesus at a time of need.  God has placed her there, in heaven, as our Queen and Mother.  We need a mother’s love; in the Church we need a Mother’s feminine, delicate, interceding touch.

If we take the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer, then it all becomes clear.  The first phrases of the prayer are from Sacred Scripture: greetings and praise from God (via the Angel Gabriel), “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee”; and then from Elizabeth, “Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  The ‘Hail Mary’ prayer is clearly rooted in Scripture.  Mary is designated the daughter of Jerusalem, the flower of Israel, ready to receive the Saviour.  The second part of the ‘Hail Mary,’ then, is our prayer — our request for prayer — “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”  There it is, clear on the page: “pray for us.”

The key to prayer to Our Lady and the Saints is that they pray for us in all our needs and necessities.  They are not plaster-cast statues immune from the real world.  They have lived our life!  They know just what it means to struggle; and they also know what it means to win — to win through to heaven, by God’s grace.

God has given us the Church and He has given us the fellowship (the communion’) of the Saints.  Let us not neglect them — let us be their friends and companions here on earth, in order that we might more completely and perfectly be their companions one day in heaven.  On the feast of her birth, we ask Our Lady’s prayers — especially for Syria in this current, sad, crisis, and we invoke also the prayers of St Ephraim and all the saints of Syria for that land where the Church — for example in Antioch — had many of its beginnings.  Our Lady and All the Saints, pray for us!

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Homily no. 43 – ‘The Tradition of Prayer’ (CCC 2650–2682)

Prayers in the Catholic shrine

Prayers in the Catholic shrine (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

We’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, in thinking about prayer in the 4th section of the Catechism, how the currents of prayer continued in the Old Testament reach their perfection and fulfilment in the New Testament, in the prayer of Jesus, the Son of God’s perfect relationship with the Father. In this tradition, the apostles were taught by Jesus to pray, and they have established for us the ways of Christian prayer.  I want to think today a bit about the different ways we pray.

First, there are different intentions in praying.  That is, prayer is not just about asking for things, any more than any relationship is just about one asking the other for something.  A relationship that is based entirely on one asking the other for things is bound to fail.  There is more joy, says St Paul, in giving than in receiving.  So, in the first instance Christian prayer is Adoration and Blessing.  This means that our hearts are turned to God simply because He is God.  The Lord blesses us, and we ‘bless’ His name, we adore Him in His majesty and glory as Creator and Ruler of all things.  Sometimes we may well adore God simply in silence and in awe for who He is, His grandeur.  This too is prayer — prayer doesn’t always have to be about words.

Petition & Intercession would be a second form of prayer, in which we ask for things, and seek the mediation above all of Christ the Son of God, for all our needs.  We ask for good things for ourselves, not for selfish things.  But we also ask on behalf of others, and we seek others’ help in prayer: as the Church, we pray for one another, raising a constant chorus of prayer — interceding all the time for our needs and the needs of others.  It is one of the key characteristics of the Church that we pray as a body, as a whole, united in prayer.  This was true of the Church from the beginning: the concerns of each one were the concerns of everyone.  Perhaps we find it easiest or most compelling to pray when we are in need, or when one close to us is in need … and yet the mark of a true Christian is that we pray both in good times and in bad; just as we talk to our parents, or our friends, or our family, not only when they — or we — are in need, but simply at all times, building up our relationship in love.  Yet, God does ask us to turn to Him in our necessities: for He is the one who knows us best, and has such concern for our well-being.  But above all He wishes us to get to heaven, not to be tempted away from Him here on earth; so sometimes we may struggle to understand His answers to our prayers.

Thanksgiving & Praise is another dimension of our prayer.  To thank God for all He does for us; and to praise Him for ever.  The life of heaven will be filled with prayer of this sort; thanksgiving for our lives, given us by God, and praise of the Lord who has saved us and forgiven us, and brought us to eternal life.  The very word ‘Eucharist’ — another name for the Mass — means ‘Thanksgiving’: in the Mass we sum up our thanks and praise in the praise and offering of the sacrifice of Jesus.

This brings us to the matter of the one to whom we pray.  Much of our prayer is addressed to the Father — perhaps most.  In the Mass, for sure, almost all the prayers are addressed to God the Father.  He is seen as the source of all, the Creator and life-giver.  It is natural that the bulk of our prayers are addressed to Him.  Yet, as the Son of God, and equally God, Jesus is also prayed to by us.  In the Mass, for example, the Kyrie — Lord, have mercy — is addressed entirely to Jesus: e.g. “You are seated at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us.  Lord, have mercy.”  He is the one who has sacrificed Himself for the forgiveness of sins, and He is the one whom we might visualize most easily in our minds, since He is God made man, God who has taken human flesh.  Naturally we turn to Him: “through Him and with Him and in Him” can be offered all our prayers to the Father.  And the Spirit too: prayer to the Holy Spirit is important, for He is the Lord and life-giver, the One who reigns in our hearts when they are free from sin.  Invoking the Holy Spirit is a blessed way of asking for grace and the strength to do good and avoid evil.  Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of Your love.  It’s a good question to ask yourself: to whom do you most naturally pray?  To Father, Son, or Spirit?  And if it is most normally just one person of the Trinity, why not vary your prayer and address the others too?

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Homily no. 42 – ‘Prayers of Jesus — Prayer of the Church’ (CCC 2598–2649)

Andrea Mantegna's Agony in the Garden, circa 1...

Andrea Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden, circa 1460, depicts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last Sunday we embarked on our analysis of the 4th main part of the Catechism, the section on prayer.  And we looked last week at some of the traditions of prayer in the Old Testament, the beautiful prayers coming from Israel as they adored God from 3000+ years ago.  We think today about the tradition of prayer arising with Jesus Himself, and how this has formed our own Christian prayer life.

Well, of course, Jesus was raised in the Jewish tradition.  He was exposed to the synagogue and Temple worship, and raised in prayer by His Blessed Mother in the family home.  Jesus Himself would have prayed the psalms; never forget that these psalm-prayers were also on the lips of Jesus — He would have known these texts well, many of them by heart.  But of course Jesus’s tradition of prayer is far more than this: His prayer is His relationship with His Father.  When He was only 12 He said to His Mother, when she found Him in the Temple, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s affairs?”  The Son of God is in perfect relationship with the Father: Jesus is united in prayer always, with the Father, for they are the One God.  Jesus draws us in to that new and close relationship, bringing us in to that Father–Son closeness.

So, we see in the Gospel many moments of Jesus at prayer.  He finds tie for solitude, time for silence.  He is seen at prayer at key moments, such as at His Baptism, at the Transfiguration, and in the Garden of Gethsemane before the horrors of His Passion. And He prays at crucial times of decision with respect to His disciples: when choosing the Twelve, for example.  The disciples saw Him often at prayer, and they were drawn to ask Him: “Lord, teach us to pray.”  As you know, He taught them the ‘Our Father,’ and the text of the ‘Our Father’ will form much of what the Catechism says about prayer (5 homilies, 22 Sept – 20 Oct), and will be the conclusion of the Catechism’s teaching.  Let me quote to you some of the text of Jesus’s explicit prayers as recorded in the Gospel:

(i) “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.  Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do.” (Mt 11).

(ii) [Before raising Lazarus from the dead.] “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer.  I knew indeed that you always hear me, but I speak for the sake of all these who stand round me, so that they may believe it was you who sent me.”  (Jn 11)

(iii) [Jesus’s High-Priestly Prayer.] (Jn 17).

(iv) [Jesus’s prayers from the Cross.] “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do … Father, into You hands I commend my spirit.”  Jesus’s moving prayers in extremis at the end of His earthly life express the beauty of His relationship with Father as constant and faithful, unique and perfect.

In all these ways, Jesus teaches us to pray: by praying, He teaches us to want to pray; teaches us to pray.  He calls us constantly to conversion, to closeness to Him, and so to prayer with Him, to the Father.  Jesus urges us to be persevering and ‘bold’ in our prayer to the Father — even the very opening of the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father …” is bold.  “… we dare to say …”  But He also warns us that prayer must be real prayer from a true heart … not just ‘saying the words’ … “It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt 7:21).  Prayer is not just a recitation, but a real movement of the heart: to desire union and holy communion with God.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gives us several parables on prayer: (i) Lk 11: the friend who needs help from his neighbour: keep asking, pray urgently!  (ii) Lk 18: perseverance, like the widow repeatedly denied her rights; (iii) Lk 18: the Pharisee and the Tax-Gatherer: prayer demands humility, not arrogance, before our Holy God … The prayer of the tax-collector was a simple one: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  This is a a prayer echoed in one of the simplest of Christian prayers, the ‘Jesus Prayer’: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

In all these ways, we find encouragement to pray, praying along with our Lord Jesus to the Father.  So, when we pray, we are actually to ask in Jesus’s name, petitioning the Father in association with the Son.  We pray too in the power of the Spirit, as revealed to us by Jesus.  Christian Prayer is offered to the Trinity, as the priest sings at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer: “Through Him [Jesus] and with Him and in Him, O God Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.”  The basis of all our Christian prayer, then, is this unique relationship of Jesus to the Father in the Spirit.  We are caught up into this relationship, which means that there is no better way in the world to pray than as a Christian, in Jesus.  All other ways of praying fall short of this, worthy though they may be.  Christian prayer is unique because we pray united with the Son Himself to His Heavenly Father!

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Homily no. 41 – ‘The Call to Prayer’ (CCC 2258–2597)

Prayer of David, psalm 51

Prayer of David, psalm 51 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)

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