by Fr. Jack McArdle
There is a big difference between praying and saying prayers. I could teach a parrot to say a prayer, but I could never teach a parrot to pray. I can speak words, but the spirit in the words determines how helpful or hurtful they are. It is the spirit in the words that reaches the listener. Someone could be devastated with a terrible tragedy, and I just don't know what to say. It really doesn't matter what I say, if there is real love and concern in my words. On the other hand, I could say all the correct words, and be very careful in my choice of words, but, if they are not inspired by love, they will not be helpful. Praying is a very wide field, and there are endless ways and means to pray. One of the ways is by using words. The words used, however, have to have God's Spirit in them if they are to become prayer. It is important, right from the beginning, to emphasise this vital principle: it is the Holy Spirit who turns my words into prayer.
In the movie The Ruling Class, this man is in a psychiatric hospital, and his problem is that he thinks he's God. One day, to humour him, the psychiatrist asked him how he discovered he was God, and he replied, "The way I discovered I was God was that I was praying and praying for years and years, and then, one day, I woke up, and discovered I was only talking to myself." Saying prayers, without the Holy Spirit being involved, is simply talking to myself, and I shouldn't be surprised when nothing happens, and I don't even feel inspired myself. Now, like Jesus, there is one simple problem when it comes to the Holy Spirit. He will not be involved in anything unless he is asked! So, right from the start, let me make this point perfectly clear : when I begin to pray, I should simply ask the Holy Spirit to be in my words, to turn my words into prayer. That's all. It's as simple as that. Try it, and see what happens in your prayer.
The second thing I want to emphasise is that the organ God gave me with which to pray is the heart, not the tongue. In the main basilica in Assisi, up over the main altar are the words Si cor non orat, in vanum lingua laborat, which, in simple English, means if the heart is not praying, the tongue is wasting its time. It is a very long journey from the head to the heart. I could have enough intelligence up in my head to write a book about God, while, down in my heart, I might not really believe in God. "Head people" can be dangerous, because they can be full of brilliant theories, and bright ideas, but, down in their hearts, they could be moral cowards, or totally paranoid. If I want to really make contact with God, and, therefore, pray, I must go downstairs into my heart. "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me", is how God described the Israelites one time. Those words could apply to all of us, at some time or other, I'm sure.
I mentioned, earlier, that, without involving the Holy Spirit, I am only mumbling words. Jesus compared the Holy Spirit to a fountain of living water that rises up from within a person. In other words, the Spirit comes up from the heart. "From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks", says Jesus. Once again, I need to know what kind of spirit is in my heart. If it is a spirit of greed, of anger, or of jealousy, that is what will inspire my words and actions. The thing I must remember is that the Spirit of God is always in my heart, even if ignored, or not availed of. I received God's Spirit at my baptism, and his presence in me was confirmed at Confirmation. The problem usually is that I have the Spirit, but the Spirit may not have me. I can very well get on with my life, living and acting independently of the Spirit. That is why I said earlier that, if I want to pray, I must begin by getting in touch with the Holy Spirit, and involving him in the exercise.
St. Paul goes so far as to say that we do not know how to pray, but the Spirit of God can give meaning to our words, and can speak within us in ways that are not possible with words. I pick up a telephone to make a phone call. Suppose the line is broken, and I do not know that, I will soon discover that my efforts at making the call are not being very successful. In fact, I will discover, sooner or later, that I just cannot make the call. If the Spirit is not involved in my attempts to pray, then the wire is broken, and I cannot make connection. When Jesus did what he came to do, he returned to the Father. He sent his Spirit to complete his work. In other words, nothing of God gets done around here anymore, without the Holy Spirit being directly involved. To use the language of the business world, the Holy Spirit is the Executive Member of the Trinity!
A man returned to his car in the car park of a supermarket, to discover that the side had been badly dented. His shock was relieved somewhat, when he noticed that there was a piece of paper under one of the wipers. He opened the paper, and read what was written. "I have just hit into the side of your car, as I was pulling away. The people who witnessed this are still watching me. They think that I am writing my name and address on this piece of paper, but they are wrong." Prayer is much more than simply going through the motions. Jesus said the Pharisees believed that, by using many words, they would get God's attention, but there is much more to prayer than that.
When I was a lad, we were told that prayer was a raising of the mind and heart to God, to adore him, to praise him, to thank him for his benefits, and to implore his grace and mercy. It is very difficult to define prayer, as if it were some sort of action that is clearly marked by a beginning and an end, and that produces a certain result. Vocal prayer is speaking to God, and, like any conversation, its value lies not in the length, but in the depth. It is not so much me raising myself, or any part of me to God, but going downstairs into my heart, and getting in touch with God there.
Once again, I cannot think of this outside the central truth of Incarnation, where God has come to where I am. The genuine charismatic becomes a contemplative, because the closer I come to God, the less reason I have to shout! I will speak about charismatic prayer later on. For now, suffice it to say that it involves giving free rein to the Spirit within, while singing, praying, or listening, as the Spirit leads me. Prayer is one name for working on my relationship with God. Like any other relationship, there is a personal dimension to it. I am speaking here, of course, of my own personal private prayer, as distinct from community worship, such as being present at Mass. Like any other relationship, it grows through honesty and truth, and dies as a result of insincerity, and sham. I come before God, exactly as I am, exactly as he sees me, without any pretense, or desire to impress or deceive.
Jesus speaks of the Pharisee who went to the temple to pray. It was important to him that he should be seen by others, because he took pride in his goodness, and his religious observance. The Pharisee stood up, and prayed out loud, for all to hear. He told God how good he was, and he listed off all the good things he had done. God was to be silent, and listen, because the Pharisee was speaking! This was a complete reversal of roles, because real prayer is not so much me talking to God who doesn't hear, as God speaking to me, who may not listen. Jesus told the story to teach a lesson about prayer, and about the attitude we should have when we come before God. The other person in the temple was a publican, a sinner, who dared not even raise his eyes, but struck his breast, and prayed "Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Jesus said that it was the publican who went away at peace with God, because he was the one who was honest, and who knew his place before God.
Jesus could have used many different words to describe the Holy Spirit, but he chose the words "Spirit of Truth". This was to serve as an antidote to the spirit of lies, who had led the human race astray in the first place. If the Spirit is to be involved in my prayer, then my prayer must be based on truth. God knows what is in my heart, but he respects my right to keep that to myself, or to trust his love and acceptance enough, to share that with him. We all find ourselves in situations where we know what is bothering a friend, and we encourage that friend to talk about it. Hopefully, we will have enough respect and cop-on to back off, and let the other decide just how much is going to be shared.
Jesus did not go around the roads of Galilee healing anyone. No, he went around with the power to heal, and the people on the roadside made up their own minds. There were many who died of leprosy, or with blindness, even though Jesus walked right in front of them. Even when some of them did stop him, he asked them what they wanted. It was obvious that one man was blind, and that others had leprosy, but, still they had to ask him. "Lord, that I may see.........Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." On occasions, he even asked them if they believed he could heal them, and when they said they did, he told them that it was their faith in him that made them well. In other words, he gave the power to them, and the decision was theirs.
Prayer becomes so much easier when I am honest with God. That includes the times when I am angry with him for something that has happened. Not much point in trying to speak sweet words of piety, when, inside, I am really angry, terrifed, or depressed. God sees what's in the heart, and, as the writer of the Psalms says, he knows me through and through ; he knew me in my mother's womb ; he can read every thought, feeling, and emotion within me.
A young lad says, sometime in October, that he wants a bike for Christmas. He never mentions the word 'bike' again. I'm not sure his parents should buy him a bike. If he really wanted a bike, they would be left in no doubt. It is the same with prayer. God always answers sincere prayer, even if it is not the answer we had expected. A young lad had been praying for a bike, and he didn't get one. His pal was jeering him, and spoke about God not answering his prayer. The lad said that, of course, God had answered his prayer, and the answer was 'no' ! If God were cruel and sadistic, he would give us everything we ask for, and have a good laugh, because we must surely ask for things that are not for our good.
In the following chapter, I will suggest practical ways that may help, when we pray, but there is no one technique that is better than another. Three priests sat around discussing methods of prayer. One was very emphatic that the only way to pray was on our knees. The other disagreed, because he practised an eastern method, where he sat on the floor, with his back upright, and both hands held open on his lap. The third was equally emphatic that the correct way to pray was to pray as Jesus did, when he cast his eyes up to heaven. The argument went back and forth for some time. There was an electrician doing a job in the corner of the room, and he approached them sheepishly to say, "Far be from me to debate methods of prayers with three priests. But I'll tell you one thing I have found out about prayer. The best prayer I ever prayed was one time when I hung by one leg from an electric pole, in a thunder storm, when the ladder slipped. And you know something, God heard me!" God is really interested only in what is in the heart. It is not possible for a human being to fall on his knees, cry out to God, and not be heard.
Prayer is, above all, giving God time and space in my life. The length of time is not what matters, because, I believe if I begin at all to give God time, that I will be lead along into some further time, when I begin to get in touch with my own needs. If I'm honest, I must admit that I can always find time for the things I really want to do. For myself, I love watching football on television, and I often find myself arranging work in such a way, to ensure that I will be free to watch the match. It doesn't always work out that way, but it is never because of lack of intention and effort on my part.
I said earlier that prayer is working on my relationship with God. Building a relationship with another requires spending time with that person. It involves sharing and listening, and part of the sharing includes common interests. If I visit with someone only when I want a favour, and if I continue to talk about myself only, to the exclusion to the interests of the other, I will not be building a healthy two-way relationship. The greatest contribution I can make to peace in the world is to look in my own heart, listen to the inner voice of conscience, and take whatever steps are necessary to establish peace there.
Peace is what I experience when my relationships are the way they ought to be. I must always watch out for selfishness in prayer, because selfishness is most destructive when it is disguised as a good. When I have peace in my own heart, I can contribute positively to peace in the world, by praying for that. Jean Vanier, one of God's special people in today's world, says that some of the greatest movements for good in the world have been brought about by the quiet prayers of totally unknown people. Taking responsibility for my own part in today's world is a sign of maturity, and making my own contribution towards the betterment of the world around me is to develop a generous spirit, and a giving attitude.
The ordinary basic rules of good manners apply in prayer, even more than anywhere else. Jesus was deeply hurt when only one of the ten lepers he healed returned to thank him. Having a grateful heart is something wonderful, and a source of on-going blessing in my life. It is not possible to be grateful and unhappy at the same time. King Lear lamented that "how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." Ask any parent, and this will be confirmed for you.
My relationship with God is deeply effected by how I relate to other people. If I have the honesty to admit to wrong-doing, and to seek forgiveness from another, I will do the same with God. In fact, one without the other is meaningless. St. John says that "if you say you love God, and do not love your brother and sister, you are a liar, and the truth is not in you. How can you say that you love God, whom you cannot see, and not love your brother and sister whom you can see?" Not praying, or not making an effort to pray, is often a sign of something more serious than just not praying. It indicates an attitude that is very unhealthy, and certainly not life-giving.
Service to others is at the very heart of Christian living, and, quite often, praying for another may be the only service I can provide. The most I can do for another is to heal sometimes, to help often, and to care always. I may not be able to heal or to help in a particular situation, but I can certainly pray. Such prayer of service is very pleasing to God, and, as Jesus said, whatever I do for others, he will consider as a service rendered to him. God weighs my prayers, rather than counts them. He criticised the Pharisees for thinking that multiplying prayers made them more effective. His own prayer-life was obviously very important to him, as he continually slipped away by himself, to be alone with his Father. Yet his prayer was also very simple.
His apostles asked him to teach them to pray, because, obviously, they were deeply impressed by watching him at prayer. He taught them the 'Our Father', which is a very simple prayer. It is a very down-to-earth prayer in that, after the opening praise to God, all the rest of the prayer is about life among us down here. He gives praise to God, he prays for what God wants to happen among us ; he asks just for what is needed today, and he asks God's on-going protection among the evils that surround us. Even when he taught them to ask for forgiveness, this was to be measured by the degree of forgiveness they extended to others. Once again, the balance between the vertical and the horizontal, between God and me, and me and others, must be kept in mind.
Quite often, my most powerful and effective prayers do not require words. I go downstairs into my heart, I open the door, and invite the Lord in. As often as not, prayer is what he does, when I allow him. Prayer has much more to do with attitude than with actions. I have often seen someone sitting by the bedside of a loved one, who is dying, simply holding a hand, and saying nothing. At other times, I have watched as a mother nursed a sleeping baby. There are no words involved, but there is a deep conscious awareness of the other.
In the final analysis, it is about love, and when that is part of a relationship, the words become less and less important. Even when a mother is speaking to a baby, the words sound like meaningless gibberish, but there is a relationship there, of which both baby and mother are conscious. If I came up behind the mother, and heard her say "Vouchsafe, I beseech thee, humbly to grant onto me one night's sleep", I would have good reason to be concerned about the relationship! Quite often, words can be the weakest form of communication. At a grave-side, a hug, or putting an arm around the shoulder of another, can be more meaningful than trying to think of some suitable and appropriate words.
In the following chapter I will deal with listening in prayer, with what God may have to say to me, if I am prepared to listen. There are as many methods of prayer as there are people. If we differ even right down to a finger print, and if we accept the fact that God created each of us to reflect some special aspect of himself, then don't be surprised that our relationship with him should be different, and our ways of being in touch with each other should be uniquely personal to us. That is why, in speaking of prayer, that I have deliberately kept my reflections on the level of general observations, rather than being very specific, black and white all the way. I have to respect God's way of being in touch with you, and your own openness to respond.
The one thing that I say, very emphatically, is that I must give prayer a definite place in my life, no matter how more or how less that may be. If I do not eat food, my body will soon let me know, and the people around me will soon become aware of that. Food provides energy for my body, as petrol does to an engine. If I do not pray, that inner me, that real-self me, will tell me, and very soon, I will begin to become spiritually malnourished, and those around me will know that all is not well with me. It may sound strange, and even arrogant, but I certainly recognise people who pray. I know it in everything they do and say. There is a health about them that is evident, and they have a richness of spirit that exudes life to those they meet. A very popular book on prayer from some time back is called "Prayer is a hunger". I believe there is a spiritual hunger within us. We may try to take care of it through material or emotional food, but that emptiness will persist, and that empty place within will continue to cry out for nourishment. As St. Augustine said "You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts can never be at rest until they rest in you".
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Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.