Lord, teach us to pray
"Lord, teach us to pray.”
This profound request is made, St. Luke tells us, by “one of his disciples.” This is actually rather rare. We hear lots of requests posed to Christ in the Gospels, but it is almost always by a named character, or “the Apostles” (meaning they all asked together), or two Apostles together, etc. This is, as far as I can tell, the only time that the Gospels represent “one of His disciples” making such a request.
So why this special treatment of just this request? Surely it is because the request “teach us to pray” is the desire of the heart of every Christian. St. Luke invites each one of us to imagine his or her self as the unnamed disciple making this profoundly important request: “Teach us to pray.”
I recently watched the 2013 movie Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut / scientist stuck in space alone following a debris strike that kills or separates her from all the other astronauts. All alone, on the point of despair, she starts to talk – it’s not clear to whom. She says, “I guess I should pray, but I don’t know how. No one ever taught me how to pray.” Hearing those words, my heart sunk, because they were so believable. There are so many people – and not just young people, but middle aged and older people too – who have never been taught how to pray.
Even people who have grown up in religious households have often not been taught how to pray. We might have been brought to church, and attended religious education classes, and even Catholic schools (especially for my generation that grew up in Catholic schools without the sisters) without really learning how to pray.
I was working one time with a Chinese student at Purdue University – Fort Wayne, trying to explain what prayer was. She honestly had no idea what I was talking about. She had become interested in Catholicism, interested in the story of Christ, but the whole idea of communicating with God, after having grown up in atheist, Communist China – it just made no sense at all. I think there are now a lot of people who are having the same experience growing up right here in this formerly Christian country. They hear us talking about prayer and the word means nothing to them at all.
So how can we inspire people to want to pray? In his review of Gravity, Bishop Robert Barron points out that this desire to pray in Sandra Bullock’s character – Dr. Ryan Stone – comes from her encounter with self-sacrificial love. Just before her furtive attempt at prayer, her mission partner, Lt. Matt Kowalski, has sacrificed his life for her. Stuck outside the space shuttle, Dr. Stone’s leg is tangled up in some cords and the tether connecting their space suits is the only thing holding Kowalski to safety. But they’re still moving, and he can see that his momentum is eventually going to snap the cords and pull them both free, so he unclips the tether and floats away into oblivion, giving her the possibility to climb back into the space station and attempt a return to Earth.
An encounter with self-sacrificial love has the power to inspire prayer. It is, after all, an encounter with Christ’s Cross that inflames the heart of the Christian to desire a greater union with Him. And that is what prayer is really all about – not just communication with God but union with Him. Seeing the love that He pours out for us, we desire to share our lives with Him. By loving others with the self-sacrificial love of Christ, we can inspire in them desire for the source of that love. And that is ultimately what prayer is – an expression of our desire for union with God.
I was taught that lesson by another young person who grew up in a non-Christian country and had been inspired by several different people here in the US to explore Christianity and the Catholic Church more specifically. While prayer was more comprehensible to him, he was racked with uncertainty about whether he was having an authentic experience of God, and about whether he could have the sort of experiences of God that he had heard other people talk about. Relating that experience to someone else I was reminded of an important truth – desiring to experience God is actually already to experience Him, because that desire is already His gift.
This young man’s story also shows the importance of example in teaching others to pray. St. Luke introduces the request by the anonymous disciple – you and me – for Christ to teach them to pray by telling us that, “Jesus was praying in a certain place…” It was in seeing that Christ was praying that the disciples wanted to know how He prayed.
The example of prayer is especially powerful in the family. In my own family, I was blessed to have a father who was comfortable not only with leading traditional devotions – which certainly nourished the spiritual life of our family – but also with spontaneous prayer. Each night as a child, I remember being struck in particular by listening to the prayers of my grandmother and my father. My grandmother, because of her constancy and steadiness – no frills, no fancy words, no easily-mocked constantly repeated tropes, just straightforward Germanic honesty and forthrightness. Unlike so many people, she never sounded like she was imitating anyone else or making it up to sound holy. And my father, because of the earnest love he expressed for my mother and for us.
Teaching your children to pray and praying together with them has the power to unite a family across its differences and conflicts. My father and I were about as different as could be imagined: he the athletic factory worker whose summer tan didn’t wear off until March; me the pale, bookish choir nerd who constantly had to be forced to go outside. Although my father always supported my interests and never pressured me to be just like him, the natural differences were too glaring to be ignored. But it was in hearing my father pray with true love and devotion for his family – even for that son who struck out at every single at-bat – that I could know for sure that his love was real.
The Apostles too had the privilege of not only seeing from a distance that Christ was praying, but they heard His prayer to the Father. At the Last Supper, St. John tells us that Christ “lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee … I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them to me, … I am praying for them …, for they are thine” (Jn 17:1, 6, 9). My father likely wasn’t aware of it, but in praying for us within our hearing, he was imitating Christ’s prayer. Husbands and fathers, let your families hear you pray for them!
The Apostles were not the only people ever to enjoy this privilege, though. At each and every Mass, you have the privilege of listening in on Christ’s prayer to the Father. Just as Christ prayed to the Father at the Last Supper, so here too at Holy Mass, where that Last Supper is mystically represented for us along with His Death and Resurrection, Christ continues praying to the Father through the voice of the Church. The priest, in the person of Christ, begins the prayer of consecration, “To you, therefore, most merciful Father,” just as Christ prayed to His Father.
But this is not only the work of the ministerial priesthood. Though ordained priests take up this role in a unique and unreplaceable way, all the baptized also participate in the baptismal priesthood. When any Christian prays authentically, it is Christ who prays in you. This is what St. Paul is emphasizing in the epistle today when he says that, “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him.” We often talk about Christ being in us and forget the even more important part – that we are in Him. That is, through Baptism, we have been inserted into the life of Christ, so that “he brought you to life along with him.”
This is why the Lord’s prayer is the “Our Father,” and not the “my Father.” Only Christ Himself can say “my Father.” God the Father is “our Father” so far as He is Christ’s Father and we are in Christ. Which is to say that every time we pray the “Our Father,” we are praying to God the Father not only in the words Christ taught us, but in some way in the person of Christ.
In this way, Christ also instructs us in prayer. He instructs us to ask for our spiritual and physical needs, to beg for the forgiveness of our sins, to preserve us from evil; to be constant and insistent in prayer; to ask confidently; and to trust that God will answer our prayers in a manner better than we can plan.
If we follow these three paths shown us by Christ in the Gospel – Inspiration, Example, Instruction – we can also participate in Christ’s mission to teach others to pray. He tells us today, “how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Therefore, we ask Him to send the Holy Spirit upon us, so that through our inspiration, example, and instruction Christ might respond in us to the fervent desire still expressed by our world today: “Lord, teach us to pray.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XVII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII