The Jew’s of Jesus’ day prayed according to a formula established by the patriarchs thousands of years prior to the birth of Christ. That formula had them praying three times a day – morning, afternoon and night. The scriptures tell us Jesus went to the temple each day (Mk. 14:49). So each day Jesus and his disciples prayed the way Jew’s had prayed for thousands of years. Their prayer consisted of singing the psalms, listening to a reading from the Torah and listening to a teaching from a rabbi. The Jews believed then and now that prayer is a service from the heart connecting them to God. They knew how to pray so why did they ask Jesus to teach them to pray. What did they think was lacking in the way they prayed?
Listening to the gospel today we must acknowledge that the disciples after a lifetime of faithfully praying according to the Jewish tradition realized that they knew nothing about prayer so they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Are we any different than those disciples who prayed daily? Paul tells us “we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning’s too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). So if they began to understand they were missing out on an important element of prayer we should also consider if we are missing out on an important element of prayer?
If they questioned the concept of prayer as they understood it shouldn’t we also examine our own methods of praying? We Catholic’s have so many different ways to pray. We can contemplate, meditate, pray the scriptures, pray the rosary, pray the office and pray novenas or chaplets. We have developed prayers to Mary and the saints; we have Ignatian prayer, Franciscan prayer; Benedictine prayer and many other forms of prayer. So is one way to pray better than another? Is one way more effective than another? Are we praying each time we use one of those methods or established prayers? I would say yes we are praying, just as the disciples were praying but are we truly doing service from the heart.
Prayer is not about a method or a habit of doing the same thing each day; it is about our heart connecting with the heart of God. This is what the disciples saw while they watched Jesus during those times he went off to pray.
Watching Jesus while they were with him in the temple they would have seen him totally involved as he prayed. Jesus would have sung the psalms with joy. Jesus would have been alive as he listened to the word of God. I believe the disciples were like most people during those events; their minds would drift and they sang without connecting words to their heart – lacking feeling or emotion. While in the temple they would easily become disconnected from the service, never understanding they were there to worship.
I believe they saw emotion while Jesus prayed in the temple. I also believe they saw even more while he was in private prayer. His prayer was so different from anything they experienced it caused them to ask him to teach them to pray.
In his private prayer Jesus was physically and emotionally involved. During prayer his entire being was animated. In the scriptures we see Jesus weeping; we see him rejoicing and we see him sweating blood. We see Jesus in prayer growing in boldness knowing God always listened to his prayer. James in his letter tells us the prayer of the righteous person accomplishes much. I believe one of those accomplishments is our ability to listen to God and discern his will and feel his presence deep within us. We will also in prayer experience the power of God in our lives. I believe this power and presence of God was something the disciples desired and it is something we should desire as well.
All this should help us understand that the prayer we call the Our Father is not just words we should recite without ever considering what we are saying or why we are saying them. When Jesus said when you pray say “our father…” what was he telling us? How often do we just rattle off those words without ever connecting our hearts to our lips? This is why the third person of the trinity can teach us to pray because he can connect our heart with the prayer, just as Jesus did. I believe if we did prayer by asking the spirit to guide us then even the prayers we say from rote would be different – the Our Father will be different.
I see in the prayer we call the Our Father so much more than words we are to recite. I see words woven around a structure of prayer. I see in those words a prayer of praise, of thanksgiving, of adoration, of petition and of contrition. I see in those words the things Jesus did in his private prayers while at the same time connecting his heart with the Fathers heart. When he said pray this way he was teaching the disciples to each of those elements in their prayer.
“Hallowed be thy name” is a phrase acknowledging God as supreme, as Lord of Lords, King of Kings and creator of all things visible and invisible. “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done” is a phrase acknowledging that his kingdom is among us and his will must be sought before our will is done. It is a surrendering of self to God and offering him our very hearts. “Give us this day” is a phrase acknowledging our total dependence on God for all things. This helps us understand that everything we have is a gift from God. It is not by our effort but by the grace of God we have been blessed with all things. “Forgive us our sins” as we forgive those who sin against is a phrase acknowledging the forgiveness freely given to us by a loving God and the task is ours to be as gracious in forgiving. “Praying to be delivered from evil” has us acknowledging what the Holy Spirit can do within us to guide us to holiness and away from evil.
So let us begin the pray the way Jesus taught us and ask the Holy Spirit to teach us to pray.