Tag Archives: Prayer

Teach Us to Pray

a

The full readings for today can be found here:

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray….”

In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Good morning, good morning. It’s good to be back with you at St. Paul’s.

You know, there’s an old family legend among my kinfolk about my great-grandfather, an Irishman who lived in Boston. One day, he had an appointment with the Bishop, and he was frantically running late. Well, he couldn’t find a parking spot, and so he lifted his eyes to heaven and spoke: “Lord, you know I need to speak with the good bishop. If you will find me a parking space, I promise that I will go to Mass every day for the rest of the year.”

Well, miraculously, the clouds parted on this dreary day, and bathed in a beam of glowing sunlight a parking space opened up right in front of the cathedral and my great-grandfather looked up to the heavens and said, “Never mind, Lord. I found it myself.”

So, today’s Gospel reading centers around prayer, and prayer for many of us is a bewildering thing. Sometimes, our prayer tumbles out so easily, as the need pours out of us and into God. Sometimes we stutter and stammer, lost in a wilderness of inarticulate mumbles. And sometimes, our prayers are nothing more than groans and silence. Sometimes, I think my best prayers are the simplest: I tell God “Help!” Or I simply say “Thank you.” And sometimes, there just aren’t any words for what I want to say. I just want to be, to abide in presence of the God who said I Am.

I know a lot more about what prayer is not than what it is. I don’t think God is some sort of sacramental concierge or holy genie who will give us three wishes. I don’t think prayer has much to do with making all our dreams come true, at least not in the way many people understand it. I suspect there’s not a one of you who’s not had a prayer go unheeded, and worried that it might have gone unheard.

And yet, the Gospel tells us, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” What are we to make of this?

Well, I think we get a hint of that in the way Jesus teaches the disciples to pray. I think this whole reading is teaching us something about the idea of the Kingdom of God. It’s worth noting that when the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray, the first thing he tells them to pray for is the Kingdom of God. Now, maybe that’s just something he thought they needed because they were an oppressed people suffering under Roman occupation who were living a subsistence existence.

I mean, for people like that, the Kingdom of God looks pretty good.  But what about people like us? One of the bishops in the Anglican Communion, a bishop from Africa, once observed: “In America, you don’t need God. You have air conditioning.” And it’s true. In this country, we idolize those who stand on their own two feet, who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  We idolize the “self-made man.” And I use that word deliberately. We idolize them. We have made an idol of them.

I don’t like to go to God asking for things. It makes me feel like a beggar. And then, sometimes I think, that’s exactly why I need to pray. You see, everything I have comes from God, and I need the humility of prayer to recognize that. Because I was born on third base, and mostly I strut around like I just hit a triple. I am prone to the delusion of my adequacy, my self-reliance. I need prayer to teach me about my dependency on God for all good things. I need prayer to teach me that I am a beggar.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying for the things we want or need, and I don’t think there’s anything too silly to take to God in prayer. I think all of our prayers, no matter how trivial or crude, involve what Evelyn Underhill called a “brush with Pentecost.” We who are fallen, we refugees from Paradise, have a chance to speak, anytime we want, with the Holy Trinity and to call Them into our lives. And it helps me to realize that while Jesus taught us to ask God for our daily bread, He also taught that He is the bread of life. And I think that whatever I pray for, in the final analysis, I end up with Jesus.

Many of us turn to God only when our lives seem out of control, when we are confronted by the violence of this world in places like Orlando, or Dallas, or Baton Rouge, or Munich, or Istanbul, or Kabul. Because then, everything seems out of control, at least beyond our control. So, maybe we do have a hint of what it felt like in first century Palestine, when the whole world seemed to have gone crazy.

Jesus told his disciples several things about prayer. The first of these is the story of the “friend at midnight” who comes knocking very late to borrow three loaves of bread. There are few things more troublesome than having a friend or being a friend. It doesn’t always happen when it’s convenient, and our friends rarely need us only when it’s convenient. I think Jesus is also telling us, and this is very good news, that it’s never too late to ask for God’s help. Prayer is an awkward thing. It is not always polite, nor can we put our prayers into some manageable cabinet or corner of our lives. Jesus counsels that we should turn to God when our hearts ache and we are in need.

Jesus then suggests we look at our relationship with God as we would look at a parent and a child. When our children ask for something, we don’t give them snakes or scorpions. Jesus reminds us, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It is the Holy Spirit that compels us to pray for the coming of the Kingdom, for a time of justice and mercy and for a time of peace. And once we have prayed for it, we can join with the Spirit in working for it in a world where these things are needed desperately. Even when God does not bring us the things we ask for, God comes and brings along the Trinity, and that is enough.

You see, I don’t think that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray that they were asking for a set of specific words to say, or an incantation to be sure that God was listening. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus really gave them. I think they were wanting to know how to get their hearts in the right place, so that they could have the kind of profound relationship Jesus had with the Father. I think they wanted to know how to imitate their rabbi, so that their whole lives would become extended acts of prayer.

There’s a wonderful story about Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the giants of the Anglican Church. Someone once asked Ramsey how long he prayed each day. Ramsey answered, “About five minutes. But it usually takes me about an hour to get there.” We have to be willing to take the time to allow our relationship with the living God to develop, to take the time to allow the noise of the world to die down. Only then, can we listen for the voice of the One God to emerge and to become the first voice we listen to in a world where it’s so rarely heard. Only then, can we join in bringing about the Kingdom which is to come. Only then, can our whole lives become a kind of prayer, a living icon of Christ in the world. Lord, teach us to pray.

Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

A Simple Prayer

“O Holy Christ,
bless me with Your presence
when my days are weary
and my friends few.”

From Celtic Daily Prayer.

I have been traveling, and so this will be a brief post.  It’s my hope to offer this prayer for  the intentions of “the sick, the friendless, and the needy.”

Our Common Prayer

We have stressed the fact that prayer is an event that begins in the human soul.  We have not dwelled upon how much our ability to pray depends upon our being a part of a community of prayer.
It is not safe to pray alone.  Tradition insists that we pray with, and as a part of community; that public worship is preferable to private worship.  Here we are faced with an aspect of the polarity of prayer. There is a permanent union between individual worship and community worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other.  To ignore their spiritual symbiosis will prove fatal to both….
[The] truth is that private prayer will not survive unless it is inspired by public prayer.  The way of the recluse, the exclusive concern with personal salvation, piety in isolation from the community is an act of impiety….Our relationship to [God] is not as an I to a Thou, but as a We to a Thou.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a devotee of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  One of the most profound thinkers on prayer and spirituality in the last century, perhaps in any century, Heschel always leaves me with a sense of wonder. I took this reading from his wonderful book, Man’s Quest for God. He observed that prayer constituted “our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”

In this reading, Rabbi Heschel suggests that our spiritual lives depend on our common prayer, and our prayers remain somehow incomplete when we restrict ourselves to private prayer. That good rabbi argues that private prayer and prayer actually depend upon each other.  He calls this a spiritual symbiosis; private prayer and prayer in community need each other for either to be able to thrive.

This offers an answer for both those whose prayer life consists merely of attending church on Sunday morning, and for many (if not most) of those who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” (In my experience, many of the latter are those who’ve been wounded or hurt by the Church at some point, and have simply decided that their spirituality is safer in private.)

In the final section, Heschel clearly offers a gloss to Martin Buber’s classic work, I and Thou. Rabbi Heschel suggests that the really important relationship is We and Thou. Most of us belong to many communities of faith. We’re members of churches or parishes, prayer groups, study groups, families, religious orders or just people who gather together for prayer, study and accountability.  Each of these support, enhance, complete and inform our private prayer and our spiritual lives.

In one sense, our collective prayer and our private prayer are like the two levers on a pair of pliers.  Neither of them have a great deal of utility alone; together, they combine to achieve their purpose.

We not only enrich each other; we come to depend upon each other.  And somewhere in that process, we discover that these relationships are icons for the relationship which really sustains us: our relationship with the Living God.

Be blessed today, and be a blessing,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Our Prayers

The idea of prayer is based upon the assumption of man’s ability to accost God, to lay our hopes, sorrows and wishes before Him.  But this assumption is not an awareness of a particular ability with which we are endowed.  We do not feel that we possess a magic power of speaking to the Infinite; we merely witness the wonder of prayer, the wonder of man addressing Himself to the Eternal.  Contact with Him is not our achievement.  It is a gift, coming down from on high like a meteor, rather than rising up like a rocket.  Before the words of prayer come to the lips, the mind must believe in God’s willingness to draw near to us, and in our ability to clear the path for His approach.  Such belief is the idea that leads us toward prayer. 

–Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God.

If you have been following this blog for very long, you know that I respect, admire and often refer to Rabbi A.J. Heschel.  I consider him one of the most profound spiritual thinkers and writers of the last century.  His thoughts are particularly compelling on the subject of prayer.

Too often, we think of prayer as something we initiate.  Rabbi Heschel suggests that, to the contrary, God continually invites us to partake in prayer with Him.  Sometimes we respond to that invitation; more often we do not.  As the Prayer Book observes, God remains “always more ready to hear than we to pray.”

We cannot list prayer as one of our achievements.  We answer the call to pray through grace; our prayer itself constitutes a gift from God.  We are not the Source of prayer, we merely respond to that Source.  Somehow, we have been given the audacity to address the Infinite.  We bring before the Eternal all our hopes and fears, our failures and our triumphs, our sorrows and our joys.

As Rabbi Heschel notes, our faith that God wants to share these things provides the conduit for prayer.  The bedrock of prayer lies in the bold presumption that the Almighty wants to draw us within Himself, to share in our lives so that we might share in His dreams for this world. Here, we encounter the great mystery of prayer.   In that single act of courage, we begin to clear a space for God’s entry into our lives.

God’s great peace on you and your house,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Abiding in Him

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. John 15:1-11.

In the Gospel reading from today’s Daily Office, we find Jesus talking about His favorite topic: relationships.  I think Jesus cared more deeply about this subject than virtually any other, and perhaps we should, too.  In this remarkable passage, Jesus addresses our relationships with Him, with God the Father, and with each other.  I believe the refrain within this passage provides the key to Jesus’ meaning.  St. John uses the word “abide” eight times, so we should probably understand the sense in which he uses it.

One of the greatest problems we encounter in modernity is that vast number of people who feel adrift, who feel isolated from the world and cut off from anything that offers meaning in their lives.  As Willy Loman observed in Death of a Salesman, “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”  Jesus compared such lives to a branch cut away from the vine, which will ultimately wither.  He observed that “the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine”.

All of us sometimes feel cut off from our source, and Jesus offers us the remedy:  “abide in me”, “abide in my love”.    Too often, we try to make our way alone.  We forget that relationships provide the very basis of the spiritual life.  To “abide with” means to participate in a very special sort of relationship.  To abide with Jesus and to abide in His love means that we will make Christ our spiritual home.

As with all relationships, abiding with Jesus involves a reciprocal settlement, a complementary arrangement.  Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  Thus, we should ask ourselves, “What sort of dwelling place have I prepared for the Lord?”  Jesus calls us not simply to remain with Him, but also to make a home for Him in our lives.  Unless we permit this mutual indwelling of Christ, we will find ourselves spiritually “dying on the vine”.

St. John does not suggest that we admire Jesus as a historical figure from the past, or that we attempt to emulate something that was quite wonderful once. To abide with Christ does not mean that we merely prepare for that day in the future when we might see Him.  Abiding with Jesus means to make our home with Him here and now.  The term implies persevering, remaining true, and lasting steadily.  When we abide with Christ, we will share St. Paul’s conviction “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Romans 8:38-39.

Abiding connotes that we will remain with Jesus, and He will remain with us.  Like the branches on the vine, our continued existence depends on remaining connected to the Source of our lives.  If we allow the Word to make a home within our lives, we will feel the Divine pulsing and surging across all creation.  At that point, this holy relationship begins to determine how we act and how we love.  Thus, keeping the commandments becomes less like a burden, and more like a presence.  We are thereby grafted onto the tree of life, grafted onto the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I think that’s exactly what St. John had in mind when he wrote about a time when our joy would be complete.

I wish you the joy of God’s presence,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

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

Becoming a Prayer

 In fact, everything that we have in our minds before the time of prayer is inevitably brought back by memory when we are praying.  So whatever kind of people we want to be in our prayer time, we want to be before we begin to pray.  St. John Cassian, Conferences.

I found  this quotation from Cassian in today’s reading in a wonderful little book, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary.  In The Conferences (written between 426 and 429 A.D.), Cassian surveyed much of the work of the Desert Fathers.  The Desert Fathers, along with Cassian, provided the foundation of the monastic movement.

St. Cassian reminds us that we cannot separate our prayer life from the balance of our lives.  We cannot separate the way we pray from the way we live.  If our lives are rushed, jumbled and frantic, our prayers will reflect that.  If our lives are self-centered or consumed by pettiness, our prayer lives will not be much different.  If our relationships with our brothers and sisters are shallow and insincere, our relationship with the One God will reflect that as well.

We work so hard to compartmentalize our lives.  We tell ourselves: “This is the face I show at work; this is the way I act with my friends; and this is the kind of person I want to project at prayer.”  Ultimately, I think we’ll find that God sees through these persona, sees beyond the walls we try to build.  We can trust that His love exceeds even our capacity to fool ourselves.  Rabbi Heschel wrote that “To pray is to dream in league with God, to envision His holy visions.”

Cassian rightly notes that as we approach the Almighty in prayer, we bring our lives before Him, whether we intend to or not.  Thus, the Christian life calls us into that process of continual conversion, until our daily lives perfectly reflect the kind of person we want to bring to God in prayer, a person who can rightly share in God’s “holy visions”.  We are all already in a conversation with God, whether we know it or not.  Cassian asks how authentic, how honest and how loving we want that conversation to be.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis