Rabbi, Teach Us How to Pray

The Master of peace and unity would not have each of us pray singly and severally, since when we pray we are not to pray only for ourselves.  For we neither say: “My Father, who art in heaven” nor “Give me this day my bread”; nor does each of one of individually pray for our own debt to be forgiven, nor do we ask that we alone should not be led into temptation, nor that we only should be delivered from evil.

Our prayer is general and for all; and when we pray, we pray not for one person but for us all, because we are all one.  God, the Master of peace and concord, so willed that one should pray for all, even as he himself bore us all.  St. Cyprian, Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer.

I found this commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in a wonderful book, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church.  St. Cyprian lived in the third century in and around Carthage, in northern Africa.  He lived during a time of great trials for the Church, a time of plague, famine, schism and persecution.  He died for the faith in 258 A.D.

I recently wrote about the nature of evil, which always works to separate us: from God, from our brothers and sisters and from our true selves.  Unlike sin, which separates, prayer works to unify.  Cyprian rightly reminds us that God has woven our lives together.  Jesus called upon us to recognize that bond in the Lord’s Prayer.  If we take a look at the very first two words of the prayer (“Our Father”) we recognize our common origin.  We aren’t like a family; we are a family.

When I was a boy at Burnet Elementary School, one of my classmates accosted me on the playground and asked me if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  This question took place in a fairly big crowd of kids, and that event may be my first memory of genuine peer pressure.  I answered, “Well, yes, and no….I think He came to save the whole world.”

I’m not sure how well I understood the theology behind what I said.  (I’m pretty sure it was not a popular answer.)  On the other hand, I think this statement recognized an important concept:  I cannot really separate God’s love for me from my love for His children.  The Lord’s Prayer, and St. Cyprian, call us into that recognition.  I cannot pray for my daily bread alone; my brother’s bread must be just as important.

This notion underlies a good deal of Christian theology.  All were made in the image of God.  The forgiveness of us all must be my concern and my prayer.  One of my favorite writers on prayer, Rabbi Heschel, noted:  “The purpose of prayer is not the same as the purpose of speech.  The purpose of speech is to inform; the purpose of prayer is to partake.”

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we partake in the hopes and the troubles and the gratitude of our brothers and sisters.  We also share in God’s hopes and concerns for all His children.  We thus knit our lives together with God’s dreams for the kingdom: the kingdom which has not yet come and the kingdom which is already here and present.  During this holy season, let’s pray for each other and for God’s presence to fall down upon all our lives like a steady rain.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

16 responses to “Rabbi, Teach Us How to Pray

  1. I don’t know if God prepares my heart for your words, or He gives you the words to touch my heart, but I am grateful either way. God bless you, Brother James.

  2. Friar Gordon James

    Thanks Brother,

    It’s nice to know that I don’t have to ride a lonesome saddle. Sometimes I forget. 0:-)

  3. This is a little off your topic, but have you ever thought about how often you should pray. I hesitate to pray more than once a day because many of my prayers are pretty much the same and I am afraid i probably sound a little whinny to God. Not that he could’nt handle the volume, but it must get dreary hearing the same stuff over and over. And did’nt Moses get relegated to wander the desert for hitting a rock twice with his staff? should we hesitate to ask for help on the same topic more than once? These are just things that I worry about.

    • Mi amigo,

      I think we should never hesitate to pray, nor do I think we ever sound whiny to God. The notion that it would get “dreary hearing the same stuff over and over” might make sense, if God were like us. We believe God, however, to have an infinite capacity to listen, to love and to forgive. The Mosaic example is interesting. I’m inclined to view this as a metaphorical passage, however, and to believe that God knew Moses’ gifts and weaknesses long before he called him. We are also reminded of the parable of the unrighteous judge. Luke 18: 1-8. I think we pray as often as we can, and trust God to be God, and to respond in His time and not ours.

      Peace, my brother,

      Br. James

  4. Another excellent study/meditation, James. I’m struggling with the sin of envy because I wish I could write so well and meaningfully! Thank you for the time and effort you put into these posts.

    • Mike,

      As always, you are most welcome. I have a sneaking suspicion that you are no slouch at the written word, mi compa.

      God’s peace on you and your house,

      Br. James

  5. Wow! This is a beautiful teaching, and important. There are so many divisive elements in the Christian faith now, people who strive to define God and themselves in a way that excludes not only seekers who would like to be taught, but believers who worship in a different manner.

    More than ever, we need to be knit together again. You are right, that even the “Our Father” in the Lord’s prayer is important, and I hadn’t thought of it. You are a blessing!

    • Brother James


      I think so, too. We spend far too much time dickering over doctrinal or liturgical issues that separate us (and believe me, I think both doctrine and liturgy are terribly important), and far too little time on our common life, in a world that yearns for healing.

      Many thanks for your support and encouragement,

      Br. James

  6. This is a simply beautiful meditation, an amplification of “love your neighbor as yourself.”. Thank you for these words. I’d add that we also pray to participate in God’s concerns for all creation.

    With deep appreciation, Lera

    • Lera,

      I’m very glad you liked it. It’s sorta hard to go wrong when combining St. Cyprian and Rabbi Heschel.

      God watch over thee and me,

      Br. James

  7. You wrote: When I was a boy at Burnet Elementary School, one of my classmates accosted me on the playground and asked me if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. This question took place in a fairly big crowd of kids, and that event may be my first memory of genuine peer pressure. I answered, “Well, yes, and no….I think He came to save the whole world.”

    I think you point to a very significant issue here. There is such an emphasis, in some circles , of Jesus as our ‘personal’ savior that we do lose sight of His concern for the whole world. We focus so much on our own concerns we forget to consider His concerns and how much He loves the ‘world out there’.

    If He loves those people out there, then we should emulate Him. When we do that, it can be amazing to see how much smaller our own concerns become when we spend more time caring for the needs of others rather than our own.

    May we learn to look at the world through His eyes.

  8. As I sit reading, with the rains pouring down without end, you words, “let’s pray for each other and for God’s presence to fall down upon all our lives like a steady rain” pour purpose into my day. I will spend this day consumed by God in prayer.

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