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  • Writer's pictureLuigi Gioia

3 - The Impossible Prayer Made Possible

Updated: Nov 6, 2021


"When it comes to prayer, unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. No space is more in need of being built by the Lord than the space of prayer, than the inner and outer atmosphere where we can pray, than the room behind the door of which we are commanded to withdraw."

The Lord’s prayer is not just a ‘prayer’, nor Jesus just giving us some words, some nicely put formulas, some fitting or effective ways of addressing God. In the Lord’s Prayer we are given not a prayer, but a posture, we are plugged into Jesus’ own way of positioning himself in relation to the Father. It enshrines and expresses who Jesus really is, what it means that he is Son of the Father and what it means for us to become, through him, children of the Father and sons of God by being united to the only Son, Jesus himself.

Through the Lord’s prayer in fact we are introduced into Jesus’ own prayer.

Let us go back to the sentence in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus teaches us how to pray: ‘He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say this . . .”’[1] As we noticed before, Luke makes it clear that the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray precisely because he is praying himself. This detail opens up to us the most distinctive feature of Christian prayer, namely that it is not our prayer, it is prayer only and insofar as we let ourselves be introduced into Jesus’ own prayer and through it into his relation with the Father through the Holy Spirit.

The passage in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray should be read in parallel with Luke’s account of the transfiguration: ‘Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.’[2] Matthew adds a detail here which in his Gospel has a special significance: ‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.’[3] This by themselves is very important. The place of personal prayer is one’s room or the secret, i.e. a space where each one of us can find the freedom to stay in God’s presence: this idea is dear to Matthew. Thus, even though Matthew does not say that Jesus took the disciples up to the mountain to pray with them as Luke does, he suggests it by this little detail: ‘by themselves’ (or ‘apart’, kath’idian in Greek). It is as if Jesus was taking the disciples into his own room, that is into his own prayer, into his own relation with the Father, into his own freedom, the freedom of the Son who is able to call his father Abba!

Given this, it is hard to decide whether Peter’s attitude during the transfiguration is touching or pathetic: ‘Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”’[4]

Even though Jesus tells us to go into our room to pray, we soon have to discover that this room is not of our own making; it is not a shelter where we can contain, so to speak, this experience and somehow make it ours, possess it. This room is a space that God alone can create for us, a space we find only when Jesus leads us. In whichever way we might understand the meaning of Matthew’s room and secret, it is always Jesus’ own room, his space and secret and freedom, and we are introduced into it only by his Spirit, the Spirit he gave us after his resurrection.

In fact, as we also saw earlier, prayer is an impossible task, something we cannot achieve, something we are not capable of: We do not know how to pray.[5] But what could be a discouraging, a dispiriting truth, becomes the very reason of our consolation when we realize that the Lord comes to our help: ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills: from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’[6]

The transfiguration is not the only occasion on which Jesus took Peter, Jacob and James to pray with him. There is another moment, just before his passion, when they were invited to accompany him, this time to the garden of Gethsemane: Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’[7] He said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’[8] Peter, James and John, the same disciples who had seen his glory at the transfiguration are now the witnesses of his anxiety, struggle and fear.

This time Jesus explicitly begs them to stay awake with him, to pray with him, because the only hope of his surviving this decisive hour lies in the strength that the Father alone can give. And we know the story: the disciples fell asleep! In this decisive moment, we all fall asleep:

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ . . . Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.’[9]

Mark adds that their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.[10] Luke attributes this sleep to grief: ‘When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”’[11]

But this incapacity to pray, to stay awake with Jesus, is just as overpowering at the transfiguration. In Mark’s Gospel Peter does not know what to say;[12] in Luke’s version, Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.[13] What more telling illustration of Paul’s humble acknowledgment: indeed, We do not know how to pray.[14] We are left powerless when we are introduced into Jesus’ space, into his room, into his secret, into his relation with the Father. The cloud is so bright, the light is so dazzling, that we are blinded.

This is why being taught how to pray is not enough. Even to be taken by Jesus to pray with him (as at the transfiguration and in the garden of Gethsemane) is not enough. Our only chance of praying is being introduced into Jesus’ own prayer, being one with him, letting him pray in us through his Spirit. Indeed, this is what the Our Father is really about: not simply being taught how to pray, but being introduced into Jesus’ prayer.

When it comes to prayer, unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.[15] No space is more in need of being built by the Lord than the space of prayer, than the inner and outer atmosphere where we can pray, than the room behind the door of which we are commanded to withdraw. Certainly, there are places more conducive to prayer than others, but the best environment in the world can prove empty and useless for prayer unless we are led by Jesus into the right space, into the right room, into the right posture – which is nothing else than the room, the space, the posture, the cloud, the relation between him and the Father filled by the Holy Spirit.

We now understand what happens, then, when we say the Our Father. It is a prayer that cannot just stay on our lips but somehow takes us in a special ‘place’ right in the heart of divine life. It is somehow like[NF3] [L4] what happens when we are invited to lunch by a family. We do not just sit at their table and take some food but we are embraced by that family, we have a share in the joy, the love, the warmth of the relations between husband, wife and children.

Similarly, when we pray, we sit at the table of the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – we have a share in the joy and the love that they exchange with each other, we become part of the family of God. A more ‘theological’ way of stating the same truth is this: when we say the Our Father we are united with Jesus, because the Spirit says Abba Father in our hearts and the Father sees in our faces the face of his beloved Son.

This is what Jesus promises to us: As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.[16] This is what the expression Our Father means: ‘You whom we can call Father because you are Jesus’ Father and we are one with Jesus.’ This is what was revealed by Jesus himself when he said to Mary Magdalene: Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’[17] With Jesus’ resurrection his Father became our Father, because then he sent the Spirit in our hearts – and we know that in our heart he cries Abba Father!

Thus, the space of prayer, the room we have to go in, is the life of the Trinity, the relation between the Son with the Father and the Father with the Son through the Holy Spirit. Until we have understood this point, the Trinity remains a distant and abstract mystery, with no bearing on our spiritual life, on our prayer, on our Christian identity. The Trinity can be understood and presented as an explanation of what it takes for God to make us pray, of what prayer is, of how to pray, of what happens when we pray!

[1] Lk. 11.1ff. [2] Lk. 9.28. [3] Mt. 17.1. [4] Mt. 17.4. [5] Rom. 8.26. [6] Ps. 121.1-2. [7] Mt. 26.38. [8] Lk. 22.40. [9] Mt. 26.40, 41, 45. [10] Mk 14.40. [11] Lk. 22.45f. [12] Mk 9.6. [13] Lk. 9.32. [14] Rom. 8.26. [15] Ps. 127.1. [16] Jn 17.21. [17] Jn 20.17




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