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1 - Jesus Teaches Us To Pray


The never-changing law of prayer, the inescapable truth of prayer is given by Paul: We do not know how to pray.[1] This not only applies at the beginning of our life of prayer, but becomes truer and truer as we are led deeper into it. Saying prayers is never new, it is even reassuringly unchanging, if a little boring. Praying, on the contrary, can never be taken for granted, never ceases to challenge us, never becomes a safe routine we have mastered and can keep under control.

So, we do not know how to pray. We might wish to pray, hope to become prayerful people. We might wish to benefit from the quiet, the detachment, the peace that prayer is supposed to bring to our lives, but, understandably, we soon lose heart.

When it comes to prayer the disciples, like us, are as sloppy as one can be, bored, more often asleep than not, even at the most crucial moments: Peter and his companions were very sleepy just when Jesus was unveiling to them his divine beauty,[2] and fully asleep when he most needed their support.[3] Yet they were puzzled by their master’s habit of withdrawing to solitary places, of disappearing just when people were finally looking for him, just when he seemed to have reached a peak of success. They were puzzled by his need to spend time in silence, whole nights away, alone: ‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”’[4]

What was he doing all by himself? True disciples never grow tired of being puzzled by Jesus. Something attracts them to him – something they feel, an experience they find hard to understand. The same thing that led them to leave everything and follow him when he called them.[5] Even when they grumbled, this mysterious pull kept its hold on them. Little did they know this was the Father’s doing: ‘Nobody comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.’[6] They were caught in the gravitational field of divine life before they even knew it. ‘For I, except you enthral me, never shall be free’, Donne famously said.[7]

Closely interwoven with our not knowing how to pray, which defines our relationship with God, is this attraction we feel towards the Lord, almost despite ourselves, and certainly despite all our weaknesses, inadequacies and betrayals. When we see Jesus needing this silence, these times of loneliness, we are filled with a yearning for something long forgotten and now covert in us, like embers under the ashes of a neglected fire. And at last we pluck up courage and, like the daring disciple, ask him to teach us how to pray: One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him: Lord, teach us to pray. [8]

These pious Jewish men were not incapable of praying. They had the Psalms. They had regular times of prayer at the Synagogue. They had the wonderful habit of the berakah, that is of blessing the Lord throughout the day, from the moment they woke up, before they enjoyed anything, until they went to sleep: for good and even bad news, for awe-inspiring experiences of nature such as thunder, lightning, the sight of a mountain or of the ocean, for food and wine [L4] . They had a deep sense of their dependence on God for all their joys and needs, from the greatest to the least. No aspect of everyday life was deemed too small or insignificant to serve as an occasion to thank and bless the source of all goodness, for everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.[9] [L6]

But there are prayers and there is prayer. We need prayers, we need the Psalms, we need to bless and thank the Lord. Our relation with the Lord rests on prayers, but does not take off until we are introduced into prayer.

However, we are entitled to be a little puzzled here. The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray and apparently Jesus answers this request by adding one more text to their prayers, giving them what we call ‘the Lord’s Prayer’! And this is how we have learnt it, as one of a set of prayers to be said morning and evening. And each time it is mumbled, hurried through in our gatherings, it is as one prayer among many, one of the most important surely, but belonging to the same category as other prayers. Until one day we start paying attention to the words. We might not understand all of them, we might not be able to mean all of them, but we discover that one or other of its sentences actually speaks to us, gives voice to something which is already present in us: your will be done, forgive us our trespasses, give us this day our daily bread . . . We discover that these sentences touch something which matters at a very deep level, something so important that to ask it only once is not enough, that we feel compelled to ask it over and over again, meaning it more and more genuinely.

One of the most telling signs that our faith is coming alive and that our spiritual life is growing deeper is the extent to which we mean each sentence of the Our Father when we say it. Not only the sentences that concern us directly: our bread, our sins, our temptations – but increasingly those sentences we struggle even to understand, those that relate to the Father’s name, to his kingdom, to his will . . .

Even then we have only scratched the surface. We are still praying the Lord’s Prayer like a prayer, an increasingly eloquent, an unusually deep prayer, but still a prayer among others, still just one of the prayers. We are led beyond or below this surface only when we realize what happens when we are enabled to start this prayer, enabled to open our lips and say Father and even more so to say Our Father!

Unless the Lord unseals our lips, we cannot pray. The first words monks and nuns say each morning just after they get up, when they go to church for vigils, are these: ‘Lord, open my lips’ – and often they repeat the sentence three times, to make sure it sinks in, and to become more aware of its importance: O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.[10] We often assume that all we need is to know what to do and how to do it – then we are left free to decide whether to implement it or not. So with Jesus: we think we only need to be told by him how to pray and start doing it. But why do we need to ask the Lord to open our lips then?

The truth is that Jesus’ teaching reaches us only if he heals us. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark we hear at most four or five short sentences from Jesus’ mouth, but we see him actively casting out demons, healing people from diseases, purifying someone from leprosy. Each of these illnesses illustrates one of the crippling effects of sin on souls and bodies: we might want to follow Jesus, but we are bed-ridden or paralysed; we might want to see him, but we are blind; hear him, but we are deaf; thank him, praise him, pray to the Father who sent him, but we are dumb. Unless our tongue is loosed it cannot pray; unless our heart is freed it cannot pray. No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit,[11] nobody can say ‘Father’ unless the Holy Spirit who abides in the heart says it for us: God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’[12]

Jesus is not just a master, a teacher – he is the good shepherd who takes us on his shoulders. He does not just point the way; he is the way. Not only does he give his life for us; we live in him. And when it comes to the Our Father , we can only say it because Jesus said it first, and he is saying it still. Thus, if we want to understand the Our Father, if we want to go beneath the surface and understand why it is not just one prayer among many, but the very heart of the mystery of prayer, we must start by seeing what it means on Jesus’ lips and what happens when he says it.

[1] Rom. 8.26. [2] Lk 9.32. [3] Mk 14.37, 40. [4] Mk 1.35-37. [5] Mk 1.16ff. [6] John 6.44. [7] John Donne, ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’, The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (New York: Penguin, 1984), 314–15. [8] Lk. 11.1. [9] 1 Tim. 4.4. [10] Ps. 51.15. [11] 1 Cor. 12.3. [12] Gal. 4.6.

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