Thursday, March 5, 2009

This, Then, Is How You Should Pray

The common theme of today’s readings is Prayer.

Today’s first reading is taken from the Book of Esther, the Greek name of its heroine, who is called Hadassah in Hebrew. She was chosen by the King of Persia, Ahasuerus (Xerxes) to be his queen. She discovers that the Grand Vizier, Haman, is plotting to destroy in a single day all of the Jews living in the Persian Empire . Distressed, and not knowing where to turn, she turns to prayer:

God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, blessed are you. Help me, for I am taking my life in my hands. As a child, I heard the stories of our forefathers, and I know that you hear the prayers of all who cry to you for help in time of distress. Now help me, Lord my God, for I am alone and have no one but you.

I ask you for only one favor: Put persuasive words into my mouth, so that when I enter the den of the Lion, my spouse, his heart may be turned to hated for our enemy, and that all who plot against your chosen people may be punished. Save us from the hands of our foes; turn our mourning into gladness, our sorrow into joy.

Today’s Gospel, taken from Matthew, is also about the prayer, and its effectiveness, according to God’s promise:

Jesus said to his disciples:
Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Whoever who asks will receive; whoever seeks will find; for whoever knocks, the door will be opened.

If your son asked you for a loaf of bread, would you give him a stone, or a snake, if he asked for a fish? If you know enough to give good gifts to your children, how much more generous will your Father in Heaven be, toward those who pray to him?

How many times has it happened to you that you ask, but you don’t receive? How often have you sought a favor from the LORD, and found none? How many doors have you knocked on, but they remained shut? “How can I believe what I’m reading?” you ask. And you will receive an answer – an answer for you, which is the LORD's answer.

The 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, “Often our trust is half-hearted, because we are not sure that God hears us. That is because we do not believe we are good enough [for God to listen], and often we feel as barren and dry after praying as we had been before.

Such foolishness only weakens our prayer even further. I know this feeling myself, Julian writes, Our Lord brought all of this to my mind and revealed these words to me: “ I am the ground of your prayer. First, it is my will that you receive something, and I make you want it. Next, I make you pray for it, and you do pray. So then, how could you not receive what you ask for?”

We make our prayers “in the name of” Jesus. A name is more than a label on a conventioneer’s ID tag: HELLO, my name is: [         ]  In the Bible, Old and New Testaments, a name is the very presence of a person. If we pray “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, then we place ourselves in the presence of the Trinity (or the Trinity make themselves present to us – depending on whether you have a human or divine perspective). But I diverge!

We pray in the name of Jesus, and Jesus is present to our prayer. If we were fully aware of his presence, I suspect that most of our selfish or petty requests would die even before they reached our lips. Jesus wants to give us the gifts we need, and they are not always the gifts we want, and beg for. It is best that we remember that He is the “ground of our beseeching”, the foundation of our prayer. Jesus’ prayer does not drift into reveries as we lose our train of thought. It does not ask for favors that are irrelevant to our path to the summit of Mount Carmel or to the treasure trove of grace in the depths of the interior castle. It does not ask for the defeat of our enemies. (That is what troubled Esther, and why she prayed for guidance before she acted).

At the end of the day, the best and most effective of all prayers is the prayer Jesus taught:

This, then, is how we should pray:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth,
As it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Do not let us fall victim to temptation,
But deliver us from all evil. Amen.

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