The readings for today’s Mass lead us to think about prayer. And so how can our prayer life be enhanced and improved through what we have just heard in the Scriptures? In the first reading we hear how the Israelite army was defeating the forces of Amalek, but only as long as Moses kept his hands raised up, in what has become the traditional priestly posture for prayer – what we call the orans posture. Aaron and Hur helped Moses keep his arms raised; they supported him by helping him to pray.
In the gospel, Our Lord presents a parable encouraging persistence in prayer. If a corrupt judge will respond to the continual demands of the determined widow, how much more will the all-powerful God respond to our prayers?
I suppose the first question to ask is what is prayer? Why do we pray? Do we have to pray? When are we just saying words, and when are we really praying? And what about distractions? Do distractions demonstrate that there’s something wrong with us, that we can’t pray? What is the relationship between sin and prayer? How does sin limit our ability to pray? What is liturgical prayer? Why is it imperative that we approach liturgical prayer every week, indeed, when we can, every day?
So many questions, and so little time to address them all. And because we don’t have several hours to do this, I will simply say that prayer is communion with God. In a nutshell, that’s what prayer is. Now, when we hear the word communion, we immediately think of the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we receive and consume the Body of Christ, and by doing so we are united to God. The Eucharist is the most powerful communion with God, but it’s one of many forms of communion or prayer. Taking a moment to talk to God during the day is communion with him and is prayer. Saying the rosary while shopping in the supermarket is communion with God and is prayer. Reading the Bible or a spiritual book and reflecting on God’s care for us is communion with God and is prayer. Notice though, I place the emphasis on communion with God, and not on the rote recitation of words. True prayer – true communion with God – what we call contemplative prayer – goes beyond words, but words are there to help us get started.
And so why do we pray? Well, we pray because we need to be united to God – we need to be in communion with Him. I mentioned the other week that some people have developed a strange notion that prayer keeps God happy. Even today you hear people say: “I have to go to Mass on Sunday to keep God happy.” We pray because we need God, not because He needs us. And this is why we teach our children to pray every day. Bedtime prayers and prayers at meal times are particularly important. But it’s also important that children understand that they are praying so they can be happy, not again, this strange concept of praying to keep God happy.
Whether we are children or adults, we have to pray, we need to pray. We can’t assume that we can handle all the complexities of life without the gracious presence of God in our lives. Nor can we assume that we have communion with God throughout our day when we don’t open ourselves up to his presence. If we’re living a lie, or just going through the motions of being a Christian, then prayer will have no effect in our lives.
Reciting words and formulas and just going through the motions is never enough. The rattling off of words certainly isn’t prayer. Prayers are not magic incantations that cause something to happen. So, should we teach our children the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and other repetitive prayers? Should we say these prayers ourselves? Of course we should. But we should also understand that these formula prayers are basically background music to the great symphony of our union with God. For example, repetitive prayers like the Rosary should be a backdrop to union with God as we consider the mysteries of his great love for us. The Rosary is an extremely powerful prayer, perhaps because it requires us to be in communion with God for a full fifteen minutes or more.
But how can we pray when our minds are flying and we have so many distractions? How can we pray on the way to work when we have to focus our attention on driving the car? Do distractions mean that we are not praying or cannot pray? How is full union with God possible during the physical portion of our lives? Well, the greatest saints and mystics all admitted continual distractions from prayer. During Sunday Mass in every parish young parents struggle to focus on God while their children have their own agenda for the Mass. The saints teach us that distractions are normal. What matters is the determination for union with God, the determination to pray, despite the difficult circumstances of our lives.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there’s a big difference between distraction and destruction. Everyday noise distracts us from prayer, whereas sin destroys our ability to pray. When we weaken or break our union with God by choosing to sin, we have a difficult time praying because we are seeking communion with God whom we have rejected or even ejected from our lives by committing sin. We need first to turn from sin in the Sacrament of Penance and then return to prayer and re-establish and re-strengthen our communion with God.
In my opinion as a religious and as a priest, among the many forms of praying, the most powerful prayer is liturgical prayer. Liturgical prayer is the prayer of the People of God united together forming the Church, bound together by the Holy Spirit and with Christ as its head. We experience this prayer most often when we come together to pray the Mass. It is during the Mass that we have the most complete union with God through his Son, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We also experience his presence when people come together for liturgical prayers in each of the Sacraments as well as in the Divine Office, also called the Universal Prayer of the Church. The Divine Office is not the private reserve of priests and religious, but is the common prayer of all Catholic people.
Some people still think that liturgical prayer, particularly the Mass and the Divine Office, is just a sort of add on to our daily, private prayer. Why we come to Mass is found in the very word ‘Mass’. The word Mass is derived from the Latin word Missa which means ‘to send out’. At Mass we receive what we need so that we can be sent forth when Mass is over to bring the message of Christ to the world. We don’t go to Mass just for the experience. We attend Mass; we participate in Mass, so that we can experience Christ and then bring this experience of Christ to everyone we meet.
If you’ve had the privilege of visiting the Catacombs in Rome, you will remember drawings and paintings on the walls depicting the early Church in earnest prayer to God. Two thousand years later we are not that different from those ancient Christians. Union with God – prayer – defines who we are. The readings for today’s Mass encourage us to ask God to strengthen our union with him – to strengthen our life of prayer.