The Word Among Us

October 2019 Issue

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Learning from the Master.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray: Learning from the Master.

Born into a musical family, a young man showed extraordinary talent from an early age. He began to play the keyboard at age three. His father, a violinist, teacher, and composer, recognized his son’s gifts and devoted himself to teaching him.

By five years old, the boy had written and published his own music. He had mastered both violin and keyboard and was already performing in the most respected concert halls. He eventually surpassed his father and became his era’s most prolific and influential composer.

Of course we’re talking about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of classical music’s brightest shining stars. Even now, more than two centuries after his death, everyone knows his name. But even Mozart, with all his natural talent, began his career as a student, learning at his father’s side.

It’s easy to think that some people are just gifted at prayer. We may believe that encountering God in a life-changing way is beyond us. But that is simply not true. Many saints struggled in prayer, and many ordinary people have discovered that Jesus is closer than they imagined. Our Father in heaven can teach us how to develop our innate capacity to connect with him. He can help us encounter Jesus in prayer.

Even Jesus Learned to Pray. If ever there was someone who didn’t need to learn to pray, it would be Jesus. After all, he is the Son of God! Surely prayer came naturally to him. Well, yes and no.

Jesus was fully divine, but he was also fully human. As a man, he had human limitations like our own. He was not born with an adult understanding of his Father or of his own identity as the Messiah. No, he came to earth as a helpless infant, dependent on his parents for everything.

In his desire to become like us in all things but sin, Jesus decided to start from square one—even with respect to prayer. That meant that he too had to learn how to pray. And that makes him the perfect example and mentor for us. So let’s take a look at his prayer life.

The School of Prayer at Nazareth. Scripture gives few details about Jesus’ hidden years as a boy in Nazareth. But surely Joseph and Mary immersed him in the faith of his people. Surely they told him about his own story as well. They probably recounted the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary and Joseph’s dream. They taught him about his miraculous birth and about Simeon’s prophecy that, one day, he would be “a light . . . to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

Those are the big stories that must have lodged in Jesus’ mind. But Joseph and Mary gave him a foundation of faith and trust in God in simple, everyday ways as well. Just picture them gathering on Friday evenings to light the sabbath candles and thank God for the blessings of the week. Imagine them teaching him to study the Hebrew Scriptures and bringing him to the synagogue for instruction. Surely they taught him how to find God in the beauty of nature, in the ordinary tasks of life, and in the presence of the people around him.

The School of Christ. As he grew older, Jesus began to seek after God on his own. Remember how he stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem when his parents headed home? That’s how deeply he longed to be in his “Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)!

Even after he gathered his disciples and began his ministry, Jesus continued to “withdraw to deserted places” to pray: by the sea, on mountaintops, wherever he could find solitude (Luke 5:16; Mark 3:7, 13). In his humanity, Jesus thirsted for time alone with his Father, and he prioritized it for himself and for his disciples (Matthew 6:6). It was so important that he often got up early in the morning or stayed up all night to pray (Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12).

Jesus also made it a point to turn to his Father in prayer whenever he faced important decisions or was dealing with challenging situations. He prayed before he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:41-42). He prayed before choosing the Twelve and when he was grieving the death of John the Baptist (Luke 6:12; Matthew 14:13). And he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane when he knew his arrest and execution were imminent (26:36-46).

During all this time, Jesus’ disciples watched him pray, and they came to see the connection between his public life of ministry and his hidden life of prayer. So it was only natural that they would ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus, of course, was more than happy to help them, so he taught them what we call the “Lord’s Prayer.” But he wasn’t just giving them words to say. He was teaching them how to develop a relationship with God. He was showing them that they could dare to call God their Father, just as he had done.

The Prayer We Dare to Say. The Lord’s Prayer is so simple that a child can babble it and so rich that saints and theologians cannot plumb its depths. So let’s take a look at some of the attitudes behind the words our Savior gave us.

Intimacy with the Father. “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). This phrase is the key to the whole prayer. Of all the holy men and women in the Old Testament, not even Moses addressed God as Father. Only Jesus could assert such a familiar, intimate relationship. And yet he invites us to call God our Father. He invites us to address God as his sons and daughters with an attitude of confidence in God’s love for us. What a privilege this is! God is your Father. He loves you with the same love he has for Jesus (John 16:27)!

Reverence and Adoration. “Hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9). Often when we pray, we begin by bringing our needs to God, then later think of what matters to him. But Jesus reverses the order; he puts God first. He comes to his Father with an attitude of awe and reverence, and he asks us to do the same. From the start, he turns our attention to God’s holiness and goodness so that we will approach him with humble hearts, knowing that prayer is primarily about him, and not just about us.

Surrender. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus surely learned this disposition of prayer from his mother. In fact, she prayed similar words at the Annunciation: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). From Mary’s prayer, to Jesus’ obedience on the cross, to Mary’s silent surrender at the foot of that cross, both of them turned to prayer to find the strength to surrender to God. In teaching his disciples this prayer, Jesus invites us to yield to God as well.

Confidence. “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Remember how frequently Jesus turned to God in prayer? He lived each day with an attitude of humble confidence in his Father; now he teaches us to bring our needs, large and small, to our Father. But rather than just expecting us to find this confidence on our own, he gives us, every day, his own Body and Blood to be our daily bread. We can be sure that the One who gives himself to us in the Eucharist will also sustain us with his grace throughout the day.

Repentance and Mercy. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Jesus was no stranger to human weakness. He never sinned, but he was tempted just as we are. He knew how often we would fall into sin and need forgiveness. He also knew that he would offer up his life to reconcile us to his Father. So he taught us to ask God for this mercy, which would cost him so dearly. But he also taught us to forgive anyone who has hurt us, just as the Father has forgiven us.

Trust. “Deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). When Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert, he trusted in God and his word to protect him (4:1-11). We too can trust in God to protect us from evil. Every day, no matter what storms or dangers we are facing, we can cry out, “Lord, save me!” just as Peter did when the wind and waves frightened him (14:30). Jesus urges us to rely on his Father to shield and strengthen us whenever we face the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Taking on the Heart of Jesus. Like learning to play a musical instrument, there’s more than just mechanics in learning to pray. Prayer is more than just what we say or what we do—it’s the disposition of our hearts. With every moment that we spend with Jesus, we take on a little more of his heart, and our relationship with him and his Father deepens. We learn how to come to God with the same attitudes that Jesus had. And as we learn these dispositions, any form of prayer can become a face-to-face encounter with our God.

Our silent prayer before Jesus in the Eucharist can become an outpouring of love. Our kneeling before the crucifix can become heartfelt repentance for our sins and can make us more forgiving. And our recitation of the prayers of the Mass can become an offering of love to our Father. In all these ways and more, we can dare to pray the way Jesus, our Master, taught us.