Teach Us To Pray

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Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.”

Luke 11: 1

What was it like for the disciples to witness Jesus at prayer? In today’s gospel we hear that whatever it was they witnessed, it led them to ask him, from the ground of their humility, to teach them how to pray. It had to be clear to them that when Jesus prayed it was not another task for a well functioning ego. It was rather a kindling of heart and spirit, a participation and communion in a life that contained and quickened his own life.

It is this communion with the living God
which is at the heart of your life
as a child of God,
disciple of Jesus,
witness of God’s spirit,
quickened member of God’s Body,
and brother or sister to the world.

From their first encounter with Jesus, as related in the Gospel of John, the disciples are moved to ask him, “Teacher, where do you live?” (John 1: 38). In every aspect of his being, Jesus radiated that he “belonged” to another, that he “came” from another place than the one most of us occupy most of the time. The Divine spark in the disciples that recognized the reflection of Divine life in Jesus remains alive in all of us. Though we live largely in forgetting whose we are and where we come from, we remain able to recognize communion with our true life and destiny when it is manifest in another.

Jesus’ response to the disciples request that he teach them to pray as he prays is, of course, what we call the Our Father. In her reflections on the Our Father and on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come,” St Teresa of Avila says that the Kingdom of God, that is the realm of God’s presence, is everywhere, which includes deeply within each of us. Her observation has become for most of us quite blithely taken for granted. We readily assent to this truth. In a vital and living sense, however, we, as she and those of her time, are constantly living in forgetfulness of it. As Teresa so accurately points out, if we lived in continual remembrance of “this communion with the living God which is at the heart of . . .[our] life . . .” our interests, concerns, and dispositions of heart would be very different. So, Teresa says we must “take care always to remember” this real presence of God in our souls.

As the impoverished people of Haiti experience once again the devastation of a natural disaster, those of us who live in affluence are reminded of our pervasive amnesia concerning our life as “quickened member of God’s Body.” To remember that God abides in our soul is to realize that we are “brother or sister to the world.” Our life, our joy, our suffering is one with the life, joy, and suffering of all. In our forgetfulness, we are the rich man who doesn’t even see Lazarus at the gate (Luke 16: 19-31). A teacher of ours once said that “Ignorance is the passion to ignore.” Perhaps we don’t merely forget the presence of God within us all but rather passionately ignore it in favor, as St. Teresa says, of “the vanities and things of the world.”

As the rich man in Jesus’ parable, we who live in relative affluence find ourselves, at this point in our history, in a kind of “Hades” of our own making. Our attention to “the vanities and things of the world” has led us to a mode of living that has resulted in a societal epidemic of anxiety, rage, and depression. From the way we treat each other on the road or in the grocery line to the way se speak of the alien others in our political discourse, we suffer from a profound sense of alienation and atomization. We do not live primarily a life in relationship, but rather a life in collision with others whom we see as impediments to our own designs and personal security.

Yet, even in the midst of the worst of our forgetfulness and ignorance, the spark of divine life remains in us. Our mistake is that we try to change and fix things by dint of our own limited and ignorant consciousness. It is in prayer, by remembering “what a Guest we have within us” that we shall know the communion that is the source of our familial bond with all the world. When we pray as if it is mere function, we only deepen the illusion that our life is our own. We can then try to be good or to do good, but we cannot sustain it.

Jesus can continue resolutely to follow his Way to Jerusalem because he spends his nights in prayer, taking “care always to remember what a Guest” he has within. May we come to him, who lives within us, as the disciples did, asking him to teach us how we are truly to pray.

If we took care always to remember what a Guest we have within us, I think it would be impossible for us to abandon ourselves to vanities and things of the world, for we should see how worthless they are by comparison with those which we have within us. . . .

Perhaps you will laugh at me and say that this is obvious enough; and you will be right, though it was some time before I came to see it. I knew perfectly well that I had a soul, but I did not understand what that soul merited or Who dwelt within it, until I closed my eyes to the vanities of this world in order to see it. I think, if I had understood then, as I do now, how this great King really dwells within this little palace of my soul, I should not have left Him alone so often, but should have stayed with Him and never have allowed His dwelling-place to get so dirty. How wonderful it is that He Whose greatness could fill a thousand worlds, and very many more, should confine Himself within so small a space, just as He was pleased to dwell within the womb of His most holy Mother!  Being the Lord, He has, of course, perfect freedom, and, as He loves us, He fashions Himself to our measure.

St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, trans. E. Allison Peers, p. 84

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One Comment

  1. James Boyle says:

    When we pray as if it is mere function, we only deepen the illusion that our life is our own. The fallacy that our life is our own continues to grow and be strengthened by our culture. No one and no collectivity has the right to tell anyone what to do because the rights of the other are of supreme value and the other is everyone.

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