Sunday, July 28, 2013

Teach us to pray! (17.C)

There’s a letter to the editor in this morning’s Province from a man who boasts that he’s never said the Our Father. And that’s just fine with me.

Because the popularity of the Our Father as the one prayer everyone knows is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s good that even non-churchgoers have a common prayer to say at weddings and funerals.

Of course, as society gets more and more secular, even this won’t last. The other day I heard the story of a boy who challenged his friend "I bet you don't know the Lord's Prayer."

"I bet I do!" the friend replied.
"I bet you a dollar you don't."
"I bet you five dollars I do."
"Okay, let's hear it."
"Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."
"All right, here's your five dollars. I didn't know you knew it."

In any event, there’s a danger that the prayer everyone knows can become the prayer none of us knows. We say it often, but we don’t always pray it.

And that’s a real problem, if we look closely at the Gospel this morning. The Lord’s Payer isn’t just one among many: it is the prayer Jesus gave the disciples in answer to the question “Lord teach us to pray.” This prayer is clearly of the greatest importance to anyone who takes prayer seriously, who takes Jesus seriously.

St. Augustine says “If you study all the prayers in Holy Scripture, you will find nothing that is not contained in the Lord’s Prayer.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “the prayer that comes to us from Jesus is truly unique: it is ‘of the Lord.’ On the one hand, in the words of this prayer the only Son gives us the words the Father gave him… On the other, as Word incarnate, he knows in his human heart the needs of his human brothers and sisters and reveals them to us: he is the model of our prayer.”

So how do we unlock the riches of the Our Father if we’ve become too familiar with it? How can it be the answer to our own desire to learn how to pray?

St. Ignatius of Loyola gives one very good answer. In his Spiritual Exercises, he suggests finding a quiet place for prayer, and beginning by saying the word “Father.” One then considers that word—pondering it in the heart, thinking it over in the head, for as long as it brings insights and peace.

When God seems to have given us all he has to offer, we move on to the next word or phrase, and stay with that in the same way. But if one word or phrase occupies our full attention, with fruitful thoughts and, we just stay with it the whole time allotted to prayer, feeling no anxiety to move on.

St. Ignatius proposes doing this for a whole hour. For most of us, that requires more time or patience than we have. But easily we could move through the words of Our Father in a week or two, spending ten to fifteen minutes a day.

This is not only a gentle and helpful way to pray: it can also permanently change our understanding of the Lord’s Prayer; we may never say it the same way again after we’ve meditated it once. Jesus can use this method to teach us how to pray, just as he taught his disciples.

More and more I find myself thinking that most problems of faith are really problems with prayer. I’m still thinking it through, but I wonder whether most of us aren’t saying “Lord, teach us to pray,” and whether our parish programs need to include more teaching on prayer.

Keep an eye on the Fall calendar; I think we’ll do something to respond to this need. But in the meantime, try and find the time during these wonderful summer days to pray the Our Father as St. Ignatius has suggested.

The stakes may be higher than you think. Last night Pope Francis told some two million young people “We need a church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy, we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.”

For where do we rediscover mercy if not in prayer, if not in the person and the words of the one who taught us to pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”?

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