Prayer is not so much about bending God’s will to our will, but it is about our transformation and conformation, a freeing ourselves from the sole focus on ourselves as the center of the universe. The world actually does not revolve around us. We are invited to build a relationship with the One who is the creator and sustainer of all that exists.
Jesus guides his disciples on this point when he teaches them how to pray. Jesus said to his disciples: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7-8). Jesus is sharing that words matter and have meaning in everyday life as well as in prayer. The words that we speak are to be transformative, not just mindlessly evoked or invoked. Formulaic expressions and the mere volume of words means very little compared to a few words said with clear intent, focus, and in a mindful way.
Jesus is helping us to understand that the form or the words do not so much matter as understanding why we pray. We pray to deepen and develop our relationship with the trinitarian communion of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The very desire to pray is a prayer in itself, because we are hearing the invitation of God to be one with him. The first step is to acknowledge this invitation and then to turn our heart and mind to God. Thomas Dubay, in his book, Fire Within, paraphrases St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century doctor of the Church, in saying that “one vocal prayer, even so little as one petition of the Our Father, if well said, is better than many recited thoughtlessly or hurriedly” (Dubay 1989, 76).
Reciting the Our Father, or Lord’s Prayer, that Jesus shares with his disciples in today’s Gospel of Matthew, can be a struggle, because the biggest challenge to a life of prayer is taming, what Buddhists call, the “monkey mind”. Our thoughts can be actively engaged or random, and we can be easily distracted away from our intended course when undisciplined. To overcome this challenge we can return to St Teresa again.
When we begin to pray, St. Teresa of Avila suggests that we begin “with self-examination and the sign of the Cross” (Dubay 1989, 77).
In this way, we can bring to awareness some issues, struggles, temptations, and sins that we have been dealing with. We can settle into them, instead of run from them and seek God’s help to be healed and reconciled. In making the sign of the Cross, we bring our self, as we are, into the presence of the Trinity. We receive and experience the love, acceptance, and mercy of God and recognize that we are loved as we are, and that we are not alone because we belong and are a part of this infinite community of love. In this simple gesture we are also uniting our body, mind, and soul with the One who will lead us in our prayer.
The next step is to imagine that Jesus is with us to guide and lead us in our prayer, just as he did in today’s Gospel account (Mt 6:9-15). “Imagine that this Lord Himself is at your side and see how lovingly and how humbly he is teaching you” (Dubay 1989, 77). By mindfully engaging in examining our conscience and making the sign of the Cross, we slow ourselves down from our pace of running from ourselves, we become still, we are able to breath, and allow ourselves to experience the presence of Jesus.
Next, we can imagine Jesus teaching us the Our Father as if for the first time, as he did his disciples. Going slowly, one word, one verse at a time, allow Jesus to not only share his words with us, but we can also pause and add our own words. In this way we begin to discipline and turn our mind to God such that we can enter into a dialogue with God and receive the blessing of his mercy and love. “Focusing on the indwelling presence, says Teresa, is for wandering minds ‘one of the best ways of concentrating the mind’ in prayer” (Dubay 1989, 77).