The following are some notes on prayer prepared by Archbishop Michael at the request of the Diocesan Pastoral Council who have launched a prayer promotion initiative for Lent.
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT 2012
We are living at a time when reverence, the sense of the holy, the realisation of the presence of God is made more difficult than it was for many in the past. In that context prayer is difficult and frequently involves a struggle. The farmer ploughing his field, the fisherman spending nights on the open sea were perhaps more apt to sense the mystery and know their dependence on God than the mechanic on the production line or computer analyst in front of a screen. The advance of medical science, the increasing complexity of our industrial society, the pressures of a technological era, our detachment from the primary sources of our food and comforts – all these tend to breed a forgetfulness of the mystery that lies behind our civilisation and yet a new born child arouses a sense of wonder, mystery and awe. So a world without reverence will be technically brilliant but coldly efficient.
Taking inspiration from the Biblical sense of awe, wonder and contemplation
In the Bible the Israelite admires what God has made, contemplates it and praises the creator who made it. Prayer is an attempt to go beyond the utilitarian approach so as to open the way to a contemplative view of world and creator. In the utilitarian approach there is so much pressure on the human person to achieve, whereas prayer involves a contemplative attitude, focusing on a sense of wonder and astonishment. In this way we begin to get a new insight into ourselves as men and women created in the image of God and so discover our true place between God and the universe. In the rush of every day life we need silence when we can touch on that which cannot be expressed without a sense of reverence and awe.
Good News of the Gospel
Facing the disquieting signs of moral confusion, economic uncertainty and unemployment we ask “what’s wrong with the nation” and “what’s wrong with the Church?” Behind this questioning there lies the vision of perfection. The human race is haunted by the dream of a much better state of affairs than we enjoy at present. We can ask what is wrong because we have a vision of what is right, and we rejoice in the continual quest for what is better. We are too often the analysts of evil. It is time we remember that we do not have to rectify the situation ourselves and in fact we cannot if left to ourselves. We are commissioned to announce good news. It is the gospel that we have been given and there is no gospel in telling people what is wrong. The major question, after all, is not “what’s wrong”? but “what can we do to put it right?” And the Gospel answers that question on the basis of what God has done to put it right.
Persistence and constancy in prayer
Everybody prays whether they think of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad, the pain which you sense in somebody else or the joy you share with another. According to the Lord, the most important thing about praying is to keep at it. He says God is like a friend to whom you go to borrow bread at midnight. The friend tells you in effect to get lost, but you go on knocking anyway until finally he gives you what you want (Luke 11:5-8) or God is presented as a crooked judge who refuses to hear the call of a certain poor widow, but she keeps on pestering him until finally he hears her case. (Luke 18:1-8).
Prayer and Concrete action
We talk to ourselves about our own life, about what we have done and what we have failed to do, about who we are and who we wish we were, about the people we love.
There was no dichotomy for the Israelite between prayer and living. Prayer flowed from their daily lives and flowed back there. They brought their problems before God and prayed about them to a God they knew who was interested in them. The prayer of the Israelite is the prayer of the whole person. In our contemporary world we can be too busy to pray, so much so that prayer is regarded as a waste of time. To experience and joyfully accept our relationship with God is a basis of prayer. For example when St. Paul encouraged the infant Church “to pray without ceasing”, he was underlining the fact that there is not time, or place, or circumstance in life that is not to be accompanied by prayer. At the same time it is to be noted that he does not command his Christians to “say prayers” always. For what he urges is the cultivation of an attitude which is best described as a constant attention to God and which is assisted by a deepening awareness of the nearness of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit within our hearts.
Honesty in Prayer that reflects the situation we are in
We go through different mood swings in life, joy and sorrow, anger, victory, defeat, faith and doubt. As we read the way in which the Israelites prayed in the Psalms, we find that there is a Psalm for every mood in life. All of these moods are brought to God in prayer.
The “Our Father” being the model of all prayer
In a very individualistic age, prayer has the effect of taking us beyond ourselves and placing us in a relationship with God and with others for whom and with whom we pray. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray he responded with the Our Father. This has been acknowledged as the most perfect of all prayers. St. Augustine said that to pray for anything more than is contained in the Our Father is to pray for too much and to pray for anything less than is contained in that prayer is to pray for too little. Notice that in that prayer we do not address God as “My Father who art in heaven”, but rather “Our Father”. In other words in our prayer we are relating both to God and to others.
The “Our Father” as a template for Prayer
How do we do this? We may all do this in different ways, but it means that we do not rush out into the busy traffic of our world without the pause that remembers God. In the prayer Our Father the words “Hallowed be thy name”, link us across the centuries with all our Christian ancestors and with the thought and prayer of Jesus himself.
Tuning in to the will of God
When Jesus prayed “thy will be done” he was not indulging in any analysis of evil. He witnessed men and women who had been the victims of arrogance, cruelty and pride. He saw every day suffering, illness, greed, hostility. Jesus was not concerned with diagnosis but with cure. He spoke of the presence of God as a power for good, for health, for fulfilment, “thy will be done”. God’s kingdom is seen where selfishness is overcome, where peace is restored, where new hope is given to those who are rejected, where love replaces hate.
Linking the needs of our lives with our prayer to God
Today we are deeply conscious of how precarious is the affluence which we have taken for granted. When we pray “give us this day our daily bread”, we are transcending what in the popular mind has been seen as a separation between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the material. Yet, when Jesus prayed that prayer he was fully aware of the network of human fore-thought, skill and labour that would produce the bread. He never separated the human and divine but everything was God’s, and God’s kingdom included, the seed, the sower, the miller, the housewife.
Starting from the right place in the ideal frame of mind
We notice that the Lord’s Prayer begins, not with our own needs, but with God. Prayer is the moment when we are seeking God. When the prayer does turn to our requests it is interesting to note the order in which they come. The first request shocks us by its blunt materialism and the second by its emphasis on something that we would rather forget, “give and forgive”. Give us bread: forgive us our sins. Jesus held those two necessities close together. For him the total health of people consisted in release from bodily ills and release from the guilt of our wrong doing. Jesus was a realist about these things. That’s where the difference lies between the diagnosis of human evil and the insight that leads to freedom. If we omit God, then there is nothing but endless analysis of our evils and our problems. If we turn to God then we are on the road to freedom.