Prayer is a curious thing. We know we should do it, but we’re just not sure exactly how we should do it. Is it really just a matter of a casual conversation with Jesus? Or is it better to stick with the formal prayers we grew up with? Is it something we do completely on our own—making up our own words and voicing all of our needs in the hope that someone "up there" will smile down on us? Or is it all up to God—simply a matter of taking deep breaths and trying to quiet our minds while we stare at a crucifix? Is it a matter of just reciting all those Hail Mary’s on our rosary beads—or do we have to spend endless hours on each decade, waiting for new revelation on each of the mysteries we are contemplating?
Since the month of October has been traditionally dedicated to the rosary, and so to prayer, we thought we’d take a look at the simple act of praying. We want to ask how we can become more proficient, and more passionate, about prayer, and we want to explore some ways in which Jesus may want to renew our lives through prayer.
Let’s begin by looking at the way Scripture speaks about prayer in general—with a particular focus on St. Paul. After that, we will look at the way Jesus prayed, and then at the way Mary prayed. Our goal is to ask not only how each of these people prayed but to learn from their example as well.
Prayer: The Source of Wisdom and Understanding. St. Paul loved to pray. He told the Colossians: "Persevere in prayer" (Colossians 4:2). He told the Thessalonians to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). He told the Ephesians to "pray at every opportunity in the Spirit" (Ephesians 6:18). These passionate pleas tell us how much Paul valued prayer not only for himself but for everyone. If we look at Paul’s words about prayer more closely, we’ll discover that he considered it to be one of the best ways that we can come to understand the mysteries of God—as well as the mystery that surrounds our very lives.
For instance, Paul prayed that the Colossians would be "filled" with the knowledge of God’s will "through all spiritual wisdom and understanding" (Colossians 1:9). Paul fully expected that the knowledge and wisdom we receive in prayer would flow over into our everyday lives and become the motivating force within us, the power that will move us to live "in a manner worthy of the Lord," a way of life that is "fully pleasing" to God (1:10). For Paul, this is the only way we can bear fruit for the Lord and receive his strength and power.
Why is this? Because the "natural person" (that is, the person who is not in touch with the Holy Spirit) cannot understand the movements of the Spirit. Paul goes so far as to say that for the "natural" person, the ways of God are little more than "foolishness" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Revelation Leads to Spiritual Power. As Paul understood it, prayer works in two ways that are closely related to each other. On the one hand, prayer opens us up to the grace of God, which helps us to see life through his perspective. This is why Paul prayed that God would give the Ephesians "a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him." It’s why he prayed, "May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened" (Ephesians 1:17-18). He knew that this "enlightening" of their hearts was crucial if they wanted to know the right way to live.
On the other hand, Paul knew that revelation was not enough. He knew that the grace we receive in prayer has heavenly power to help us to live out what we know Jesus is asking of us. "Have no anxiety at all," he told the Philippians, "but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God (Philippians 4:6). Paul assured the Philippians: "The one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus" (1:6). All they needed to do was remain in touch with him so that they could receive the grace necessary to be able to fulfill his plans in their lives.
Prayer is not a last resort. It’s not what we do after we read the self-help books, after we go to the specialists, or after we surf the Internet. Prayer is our lifeline to God. This is why Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you" (Matthew 6:33). It’s why he said, "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest" (11:28).
Why Is Prayer So Difficult? We believe that Jesus is real. We believe he is present in the Eucharist. We believe that everyone who is baptized is a "temple of God," and that the Spirit of God lives in us (1 Corinthians 3:16). We believe that prayer is vital to our Christian lives. So why do we find it so difficult to pray? Why do we sometimes get so distracted when we try to pray? Here are some possibilities:
Have I lost my first love? In the Book of Revelation, Jesus warns the believers in Ephesus, "I know your works, your labor, and your endurance. . . . You have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have lost the love you had at first" (Revelation 2:2-4).
These words tell us that it is possible to be working very hard for the sake of the kingdom of God, and yet lose our passion for the One for whom we are laboring. The people to whom Jesus was speaking here were active members of their church, and yet they had lost sight of what was meant to be at the heart of their faith: love for Jesus.
How easy it can be to slip into a functional and duty-driven approach to our faith! How easy to let the passion we once knew for Jesus fade away! It’s like a couple who, having been married for a number of years, have let all the necessary responsibilities of work, child-rearing, and community involvement overshadow the romance they once enjoyed with each other.
Are my priorities out of order? It may be an old adage, but it remains true: Time is a statement of our priorities. Jesus told a parable about people who were invited to a banquet but failed to show up (Luke 14:16-24). One invitee chose to check on his real estate holdings instead. Another wanted to see the new yoke of oxen he had bought. And a third had just got married and was too absorbed in his marriage. How sad! All three allowed self-centered—even if good and necessary—interests to obscure the greatness of the invitation they had received.
Where does God’s invitation stand on our list of priorities? Jesus does not want our leftovers, our token prayers, or just our spare time. He wants us to accept his invitation and put him first. The demands and responsibilities of this world are very real, but that doesn’t mean that we can afford to put aside Jesus’ invitation.
Jesus wants to spend quality time with us every day. When we consider ourselves too busy for him, we are really saying that our relationship with him is not a top priority.
Am I dealing with dry prayer? Dry prayer discourages us. It can lead us to question our faith, or even to question God himself. At one point in their history, it seems that the Israelites had a similar attitude. Speaking through his prophet, God complained about them: "They seek me day after day, and desire to know my ways. . . . They ask me to declare what is due them. ‘Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?’" (Isaiah 58:2-3). Like the Israelites, we can tell Jesus, "I try to avoid sin, I try to do good. I’ve been faithful to you. But you still don’t answer me."
The problem with these Israelites—and it may be our situation as well—was that despite their participation in the external religious rituals of ancient Israel, they continued to do as they pleased (Isaiah 58:3). Perhaps, like the Israelites, our dryness in prayer comes because we are not as open to God as we like to think we are. Perhaps we have too much confidence in our plans for our lives and consequently are not all that interested in what God may be calling us to.
James said, "You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:3). Jesus wants us to come to him with a pure and humble heart. He wants us to tell him, "Jesus, I want what you want; I will do what you say. I do not want my ways over your ways."
On the other hand, dry times of prayer may be the result of God testing us. Perhaps God is asking us to trust him more deeply. The very reason for the test is to see if we will give up on him. Abraham’s wife Sarah doubted the Lord. Zechariah doubted the Lord. Thomas doubted Jesus. And doubts often lead to dryness. But the answer to dry prayer is not to stop praying. On the contrary, the best thing we can do is persevere, knowing that we will find a breakthrough if we hold fast to our hope until the end.
Trust Jesus. Jesus taught us: "All that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours" (Mark 11:24). Jesus wants us to know that he will answer our prayer because he wants to guide us in every way. The time it takes doesn’t matter because we believe Jesus will answer us. His own life gives proof of this truth. So in our next article we’re going to look at the way Jesus prayed so that we can learn from him.