THERE are just so many things, a plethora of them to be imprecise, in the Philippines and in the world that drive anyone to have recourse to prayer. Clear and present dangers and challenges, ongoing crises of every kind, patent uncertainties and bright opportunities etc., name it and we have it. But these are not the only reasons why we pray. In every moment and circumstance of a Christian disciple’s life prayer is of the essence. To say that I am a Christian but I don’t pray is to be a living contradiction. A Christian disciple is a person of prayer; or a Christian disciple he/she is not. I think praying, like living, is something we learn by doing. But it helps when the Word of God as well as those who have lived by it all their lives—the saints, to be exact—speak to us about prayer itself.
So what do we need to know about our spirit’s way of breathing, i.e., prayer?
1. It must be born of our union with the Master. “If you remain in me,” Jesus says in the gospel of John, “and my words stay part of you, you may ask what you will and it will be given you” (Jn 15:7). If I stay away from the Master through sin, how can my prayer ever be effective? Unless, of course, I repent and do a ‘metanoia’, a radical about-face from sin and plunge myself into the Lord’s mercy by asking for forgiveness and amending my life, my prayer would be of little use to me or to anyone. St. Ignatius speaks likewise: “We must speak to God as a friend speaks to his friend, a servant to his Master; now asking some favor, now acknowledging our faults, and communicating to Him all that concerns us, our thoughts, our fears, our projects, our desires, and in all things seeking is counsel.”
2. It must be of faith. Even doctors attest to how necessary it is for patients to believe in their (doctor’s) credentials to the healing process. Jesus, in fact, promises positive results to prayer of faith: “Whatever you ask for in prayer, full of faith, you will receive” (Mt 21:22). St. James, in another context, makes the same point: “The prayer said in faith will save the sick person…” (Jas 5:15). This is why St. Augustine urges Christians: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
3. It must aim at ultimately doing the Lord’s will. One obvious mistake we do in prayer, my Christology professor used to say, is to try to convert God to do our will in prayer when we should be converted to do his will as a result of praying. The example of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew is most instructive. As he faces the specter of his crucifixion and death he prays: “Father, if it is possible, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but your will…” (Mt 26:39). Not content with saying it once, Jesus repeats this prayer, with a slight variation: “Father, if this cup cannot be taken away from me without my drinking it, let your will be done” (Mt 26:42). Blessed Mary McKillop teaches us in the same vein: “Let us all resign ourselves into His hands, and pray that in all things He may guide us to do His holy Will…When thoughts of this or that come I turn to Him and say, ‘Only what you will, my God. Use me as You will.”
4. It must not be self-centered nor by oneself alone. This is not to say that private prayer is illegitimate. This is to say that all prayer, private or communal, must come out of love. It is in the context of a loving heart at prayer that St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori says: “He who prays most receives most.” St. Therese of Lisieux educates us as to why love is inseparable from prayer: “Prayer is an aspiration of the heart. It is a simple glance directed to heaven. It is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy…” Because of the love that characterizes the community of disciples that we call Church Jesus says, in fact: “For where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).
5. It must be humble. Scriptures in so many instances bear witness to how prayer uttered in humility pierces heaven more effectively than a superabundance of our words or good deeds. This is the lesson we learn from the humble publican who prays, not even raising his eyes to heaven: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk 18:13), to which Jesus exclaims: “I tell you, this man went home reconciled with God, unlike the other (the Pharisee who paraded his good deeds in prayer). For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14). In fact, the psalmists affirm Jesus’ teaching: “O God, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit, a humble and contrite heart you will not spurn” (Ps 51:19). St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi concurs: “Prayer ought to be humble, fervent, resigned, persevering, and accompanied with great reverence. One should consider that he stands in the presence of God, and speaks with the Lord before whom the angels tremble from awe and fear.”
6. It must be honest. When we pray from the heart, it cannot be untruthful. We are before the Truth himself and dishonesty and lying would not only be futile but also profoundly harmful to our spiritual health. We engage in dishonest prayer when we express words or thoughts that we do not mean and do not mean the words or thoughts we express. Which is why Jesus counsels us to avoid ostentation in prayer: “When you pray, go to your room, close your door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees what is kept in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6). What better room is there than our own heart where we pray to the Lord as truthfully as he sees our heart to be saying. After all, as John the Evangelist reminds us: “He [Jesus] didn’t need any evidence about anyone for himself, for he himself knew what there is in man” (Jn 2:25). St. Faustina Kowalska recounts of the words the Lord Jesus says to her in a private revelation: “My daughter…why do you not tell me about everything that concerns you, even the smallest details?” When she protests that He knows everything, Jesus’ reply is a bit startling: “Yes, I do know; but you should not excuse yourself from the fact that I know, but with childhood simplicity talk to me about everything, for my ears and heart are inclined towards you, and your words are dear to me.”
This brings us to the point of praying. We are “dear” to the Lord even before we see the way he sees us. “For love consists in this: Not that we have loved God but that God has loved us first, and has sent us his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10).