Do you know how to pray? We can all be told over and over again that we need to pray. And on some level inside of us, we know we need to pray. But do we know how to pray?
The thought has struck me more than once that I have encouraged people to pray assuming that they completely understood what it meant to pray, or how to pray. Everyone knows how to pray, right? Who doesn’t know how to pray? And yet, especially when I was leading the program to become a Catholic I realized through those who had not been Catholic their whole lives that it was not a given that we knew how to pray. Not only that, but since many coming into the Church in situations I was involved in were married to Catholics, when they asked them questions about the faith, they often were stuck for an answer too. They did not know how to answer always. Sometimes they could mumble “That’s just the way we do it” when asked about why we sit or when we stand. But too often I learned that when it came to things we take for granted as Catholics, like knowing how to pray, well, they did not know how to pray either.
And so, what do we do in order to pray? First, it is good to remember that prayer is not one thing, it is many things. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes prayer in this way: it is God’s gift, it is covenant and it is communion. As we think about prayer this Lent, maybe a good starting point to help us pray is to probe more deeply into the meanings of these words.
Prayer as God’s gift. The Catechism uses one of my favorite gospel stories to illustrate this point, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. I like this story for a lot of reasons. She is an unlikely person to come to faith. She is a Samaritan, the enemy of the Jews. She is a woman, at a time when women did not have a lot of power. She has had multiple marriages and is living with a man currently who is not her husband. And she is confused about Jesus talking about water. She knows that if you come to a well and have no bucket, then it is a little difficult to give anyone water. Moreover she does not even know Jesus.
He says this, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (Jn. 4:10) Anytime we encounter water in the bible, whether it is in the Old Testament or the New Testament our minds should be drawn to the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is God’s most powerful gift. But do we think about our baptism? Do we consider the nature of this most awesome gift Jesus gives to us? Is it not that Jesus tells us too, “If you knew the gift of God” because we are so removed sometimes from the love and power of God in our lives.
This is what God says to us about prayer. If we knew the gift of God, the gift of a powerful relationship in union with God, we would ask God for this gift all the more.
Covenant. Most of us are familiar with contracts. We have, in fact probably signed a contract in some way. When we use a credit card, that is a type of contract. When we have a mortgage, it is a contract. A contract is an agreement between two parties, but it is the case that the contract becomes invalid when only one breaks it. But a covenant is different. A covenant is more like a promise or a pledge. A contract is a deal that says when you do this, I do that. A covenant is different. A covenant is a deeper relationship. In the spiritual sense, God makes covenants, because a covenant is a total commitment. It is not limited to small areas of our lives, but it is the gift of our whole life. A covenant is literally a coming together which implies a deeper relationship that a contract which is more limited in its scopes.
If prayer were a contract, it would go something like this: I do this for God, God does this for me. But that is not true with a covenant, because the two parties, me and God, are not equals. God is far superior to us, and we are not God’s equal. Still, what we are invited to give to God is our entire self. Even though the gift of God to us is far superior, it is no less total. Prayer is a covenant because we are invited to give our entire hearts to God because God has already given his total self to us.
Communion. When we consider what the meaning of the word communion we should realize that it is this profound union with God. God invites us into this powerful union with him. Baptism unites us to God, and Saint Paul tells us that the communion of people who believe is rightly called the body of Christ. And so true prayer brings us closer to Jesus and unites us more fully to his Church.
These three qualities, gift, covenant and communion represent a process which moves us closer and closer to God. The first encounter with God is the gift to follow him more fully. And if we know God and what he gives us, of course we would want to pray. Saying yes to this gift brings us into covenant with God. And when we give our entire selves to God, then we enter into this powerful union with God.
So whatever we do for Lent, I am suggesting you consider what you need to do in order to become closer to Jesus. What can you do to accept this gift from God? If you have accepted the gift, what can you do to give yourself to God? And if you have given yourself to God, how is it you will enter more fully into union with God? Some concrete suggestions tomorrow.