by Fr. Jack McArdle
Those who know me, know me as a talker, as a weaver of words, a story-teller, and someone who never hesitates to stretch the imagination in attempts to grasp some simple basic truth. None of them would think of me as a singer! I don't sing because I don't have that gift, and I don't play the piano because music was not included in the good Lord's generous allocation of gifts to me. There are people who cannot see, because they do not have the gift of sight, and there are others who don't speak because they lack the gift of speech.
This is a long-winded way of making a simple point: I cannot pray, if I don't have the gift of prayer. Oh, of course, I can say prayers, and I can read prayers, but that's not the same as praying. I could possibly teach an intelligent parrot to say a prayer, but I could never teach a parrot to pray! I consider it a wonderful grace, and a marvellous discovery that, after many years of endeavour at the task of prayer, I suddenly discover that it was a gift all that time, and there was no need for all that foot-slogging that had my mind boggled with numbers, and my mouth full of words. There were times when my prayer was heavy-going, and quite exhausting. Many of us have memories of siblings falling off to sleep in the middle of the Rosary trimmings!
The organ God gave me with which to pray is my heart, not my tongue. I haven't been back to Assisi for a few years, and they had an earthquake there a few years ago. I don't know what changes this has brought about in the structure of the basilica, but I hope that one inscription has survived. Over the high altar were the words "Si cor non orat, in vanum lingua laborat", which literally translates as "If the heart is not praying, the tongue is labouring in vain"(or 'wasting its time', as we would normally express it). Words are often the weakest form of communication. I can stand by a grave, holding someone's hand, or with an arm around a shoulder, and words could become an insensitive intrusion.
There could be powerful communication going on between a mother and a tiny baby, even if both are silent. The umbilical cord may be cut, but the bond is just as real. Motherhood is a truly beautiful gift for those who have the physical and mental health to give themselves to it. It must be something that goes with the territory, that comes with the baby, just like the mother's milk. Prayer is a gift that is given to the heart that has a hunger for God. It is not about performance, it is about free-sailing, just hoisting the sails, and being willing to go.
The apostles saw Jesus work great wonders. They saw him raise the dead, calm the storm, and cleanse the lepers. Yet they never asked him to teach them how to do those things. They watched him as he prayed, however, and that must have made such a deep impression on them that they asked "Lord, teach us to pray". Jesus' prayer seemed to have more to do with listening than with speaking. He was in the habit of 'spending the night in the prayer of God' before making any big decisions, like choosing his apostles, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount, for example. Prayer is not me talking to God who won't hear, but God talking to me who won't listen.
Real prayer is "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening", and not "Listen, Lord, your servant is speaking". What a beautiful prayer in itself,…praying for the gift to be able to pray. There is a vast difference between praying and saying prayers. Saying prayers always require words, usually words written by someone else. Most of this comes from outside of me. The secret of prayer, of course, is that my spirit possesses all that is needed to pray. The Spirit of God lives within me, and it is the Spirit who transforms my words into prayer. Prayer is one of the most important gifts of the Spirit. The Spirit actually prays within us, and we can come to join our hearts to that action. This is pure gift, and it cannot be earned, learned, or acquired. "Lord, teach us to pray" is the only school there is.
The first thing I require is a real desire to pray. This can develop in many ways. The most usual way is probably an awareness of God's love and generosity, prompting a desire within me to express my thanks and appreciation. It is as if I wanted to proclaim his goodness to me, and how I express that is of little significance. I can have a deep sense of gratitude, and, if I so choose, I can use words to express it. There are times when I want to shout out, when I want to proclaim God's goodness to the world. At such times the words are unimportant, as we witness when someone sings, dances, claps their hands, or sings out words that have no apparent meaning. They are, what we describe, 'giving vent' to their feelings. There is a stream of prayer and praise within the human heart, and when this breaks out, it can emerge in many forms.
In a way, I suppose, the gift of prayer, of which I speak, is the result of an awakening to the reality of what the good Lord is doing in my soul, and in my life. Like Mary's Magnificat, I 'magnify' the Lord, and the bigger my God the smaller my problems. Several times recently, I have heard various versions of the following story.
A couple had a little three-year-old girl and a newborn baby boy. The girl kept asking to be left alone with the baby. Her parents were afraid to allow this, because they thought perhaps she was jealous of her new brother, and might harm him. With the best intentions in the world, she might pick him up to nurse, and accidentally drop him. Finally, they agreed to the child's request, but they listened in through the intercom in the newborn's bedroom. The girl entered the room, and, at first, there was silence. Then the parents heard their daughter whisper to the baby "Tell me about heaven, because I'm beginning to forget".
Why does this story touch people so deeply, and why is it so widespread? Perhaps it is because the story reminds us of something that we all once knew. The psychiatrist Joan Fitzherbert writes that "until the age of two, children are in intimate contact with the mind of God. Their consciousness is only partly here, --- and the rest is with the One from whom they came." What is implied here is that the Divine is always part of our deeper inner selves, and that prayer is one of the ways in which that is expressed. My parents and teachers taught me many prayers, but it was many years later before I learned how to pray. This learning process was nothing more than a growing awareness of some sort of inner hunger in my spirit, and I felt nourished whenever I prayed. A very popular book of some years ago was Ralph Martin's "Prayer is a Hunger".
When I speak of the gift of prayer, I am not just thinking of some fluidity in expressing my inner disposition towards God. It is so much more than that. The very desire to pray is an important part of this gift. Taking time out, and finding time for prayer is another part of the gift. Prayer involves making time and space for God, working on my relationship with God, spending conscious time in the Presence of God. All of this is pure gift. "Lord, teach us to pray" is the beginning of a process.
St. Francis of Assisi tells us that we should always preach the gospel, and, only when we have to, we should use words. It is the same with prayer,….only when we have to, we should use words. Using words might be nothing more than just that,…using words. It is the Spirit who changes my words into prayer. If the Spirit is not in my words, then I'm only talking to myself!
In the movie, "The Ruling Class", Peter O'Toole is in a psychiatric hospital, and his problem is that he thinks he's God. To humour him, the psychiatrist asked him "When did you first discover that you were God?". "I was praying and praying for years and years, and then one day I woke up and discovered I was only talking to myself!"
To slightly misquote a saying that was fashionable some years ago "A prayer without the Spirit ne'er to heaven will go". I have a few reminders of that before me as I write. I have a mobile phone, with no wires. However, if there is not some system of connection and communication available to it, I can talk into it all day long, and nobody can hear me. It is the same with the e-mails on the computer. I can send a message to every addressee in my phone book, but no one gets the message unless there is some vehicle of conveyance which will deliver that message to all those destinations. The Spirit provides many gifts, like wisdom, understanding, faith, etc.
What I am stressing here is that one of the most important Gifts of the Spirit is the Gift of Prayer. It transforms my whole life, and leads to the discovery and exercising of many other Gifts. Nowadays we have many workshops and courses on Prayer and they all serve a purpose. The best school of all, of course, is the School of the Spirit. There are no failures, no bad grades, or no examinations there. Prayer is something that happens to me, when I attend that school.
I remember, many years ago, I was on my first summer course in French in the seaside town of San Malo in Brittany(France). I had a bad morning, was very discouraged, and felt like throwing in the towel and going home! I went for a stroll on the beach. Very soon I came across a young lad of about four who was having a major row with his dog. The dog was after doing something wrong, and the young lad was really letting him have it. The dog cowed in such a way that it was evident he understood that he was in trouble. That didn't help me at all! A four-year old and a dog could understand French and I couldn't make head or tail of it! I thought about it for a while, and realised that both child and boy never actually were taught French, nor were they ever conscious of learning it. They were just in the right environment, and the process just unfolded. I returned to class and life began to improve!
The School of the Spirit provides the perfect environment in which to grow in prayer. Notice I said 'grow in prayer' rather than 'learn to pray'. I have friends with whom I stay for a few days regularly. They have the gift of hospitality to a very high degree. There are three teenagers in the family, and music is in every fibre of their being,…piano, guitar, drums, banjo, tin whistle, etc., etc. I could walk into that house today with a clarinet, and I'll bet that one of them will be playing a tune on it tomorrow. All of that is possible because each of them has the gift of music to a very high degree. I have learned something about prayer from them!
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