Prayer is not so much about bending God’s will to our will, but it is about our transformation and conformation, freeing our sole focus from 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 honest and transformative, not just mindlessly evoked or invoked. Formulaic expressions and the mere volume of words mean very little compared to a few words said with clear intent, focus, and in a mindful and heart filled way.
Jesus is helping us to understand that the form prayer takes or the actual words used 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 hearts and minds 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 some Buddhists call, the “monkey mind”. Our thoughts can be actively engaged, random, distracting, and even anxiety inducing within one minute. To overcome the challenge of an unsettled mind 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 away 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. “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 with our breath and our body, we slow down and allow ourselves to become more still.
Finally, 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. By doing so, we begin to discipline the focus of our mind and 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).
Photo: James Tissot, The Lord’s Prayer by Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum
Dubay, S.M., Thomas. Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel on Prayer. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989.