By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
I often ask myself about prayer. Where does a genuine desire to converse with God come from? What does it mean when the formal elements of prayer – the words or gestures of the Mass, Scripture or the traditional prayers we memorize – do not fit our interior dispositions? How does one stop thinking of God like Santa Claus, setting aside wish lists and learning to shout simply, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!” (Lk 1:68).
So, how does one learn to pray, really? Jesus of Nazareth prayed (Lk 3:21; 4:42; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 22:41), and, thanks be to God, when he was asked he taught others to pray (Lk 11:1-13; Mt 6:5-14). It was on such an occasion that he taught his disciples those most consoling words of the Our Father. Each word of this treasure could be pondered for what it has to teach us about prayer. Pope Benedict XVI has a profound meditation on it in the first volume of his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth. With the little space remaining in this column, we can look there to begin to respond to those questions above; we can look to the Our Father to learn how to pray.
For Pope Benedict XVI, already the first word of the Our Father – our – has a lot to teach us about prayer. For before we can hope to call upon God as Father we must first learn to pronounce that little word Our: “Only within the ‘we’ of the disciples can we call God ‘Father,’ because only through communion with Jesus Christ do we truly become ‘children of God.’” Jesus reveals the Father. But the Father revealed is not truly my Father unless he is our Father. And this already shows how easy it can be to find prayer difficult, for “the word our is really rather demanding: It requires that we step out of the closed circle of our ‘I.’ It requires that we surrender ourselves to communion with the other children of God. It requires, then, that we strip ourselves of what is merely our own, of what divides.
It requires that we accept the other, the others – that we open our ear and our heart to them.”
Prayer demands that “we surrender ourselves to communion.” So long as we withdraw ourselves from solidarity and communion, so long as we say ‘No’ to this family summoned by the Father who gathers to himself children scattered throughout the world (Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer III; Jn 11:52), we will divide our hearts and short-circuit Christian prayer. For, as Pope Benedict said, “When we say the word our, we say ‘Yes’ to the living Church in which the Lord wanted to gather his new family.” In praying the Our Father, “we pray in communion with the whole family of God, with the living and the dead, with men of all conditions, cultures, and races. The Our Father overcomes all boundaries and makes us one family” (140-141).
This means if we want to learn to pray as Christians – if we want to enter into the Our Father with depth and authenticity – then we must learn to “surrender ourselves to communion” with Jesus and all of God’s children. What this means practically will vary for each person and vocation. But in general it means we will not take our talents as title to our own exaltation, but rather as gifts to be received with gratitude and put at the service of others, for the “building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12).
It means we will refuse to see our treasure as a private possession, but rather as that corner of creation for which we are stewards (Mt 25:14-30); it means we will refuse to build “bigger barns” or bank accounts (Lk 12:16-21) for our profits, choosing instead to reinvest our surplus in the integral development of ourselves and our neighbors. It means we will live like a genuine spiritual family, reconciling with our brother before we offer our gift “on the altar” (Mt 5:24). Then we will understand why the love of God and the love of neighbor are inseparable (1 Jn 4:20), and why our reconciliation with God depends upon our reconciliation with our brothers and sisters (Mt 6:14; 18:21-35). To enter into prayer we must enter into communion, with Jesus and all his Father’s children.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.