The following was inflicted on two congregations today, but has a kernel of truth which hopefully might console those daunted by the rhetoric surrounding prayer.
One of the greatest spiritual dangers for Christians is not that they don’t pray; it is that they misunderstand prayer. In most Christian bookshops possibly the biggest section is that on prayer, testimony to the numbers of those seeking guidance to pray, wanting to know how to set out on the path of prayer. Ironically, it may be the one section most to be avoided.
In times past spiritual writers tended to write not so much on how to pray but on what to expect in the life of prayer, the spiritual life. Some wrote of the ways of prayer: the purgative, the illuminative, the unitive, for example. Others offered help to navigate through the unavoidable peaks and troughs of the purposeful spiritual life: through ecstasy and the dark night of the soul, through consolation and desolation. These writers, many of them saints, wrote to encourage the believer to persevere in prayer since prayer is not experienced as simply as it can be described.
Christ’s answer to the request “Lord, teach us to pray” is, as you no doubt noticed, twofold. He teaches a method of prayer, and also how to apply it. His method, rather disconcertingly for enlightened moderns, is fundamentally vocal prayer, not a technique of meditation or contemplation: words uttered well can bear with them our hearts and minds to the Father of the Word. The Lord’s prayer is a finely balanced and succinct summary of what all Christian prayer should contain: praise of God, submission to his will, a request for the grace we need each day, a plea for forgiveness for our sins wedded to an undertaking to forgive those who have sinned against us, and a further plea to be upheld in time of trial and temptation. The Lord’s Prayer recognises that prayer is the conscious and intentional expression of our total dependence on God. Unless we recognise that truth about prayer we will never pray adequately.
Having given them the prayer, Christ then teaches them its indispensable accessory: perseverance. Our Lord’s example is quite remarkable if we consider it carefully: a man seeks the help of another friend at the most inopportune time, and pesters his friend till he yields to his shameless entreaties. Of course, God does need to be pestered, nor in fact can he be. Christ’s teaching is not so much about God as about us. Our perseverance is the proof of our seriousness. If we consider something to be of overriding importance we will not waver in our efforts to attain it, and feel no shame in our persistent efforts. So too, if we truly accept our need for and our desire for God’s help, we will not cease in begging him for it, however pathetic or troublesome we may feel in doing so. It is not that we win God round to our argument, nor do we wear him down; rather, by our perseverance we acknowledge our utter dependence on God, which allows us to receive God’s help in its fullness, so that God’s giving will not be in vain.
But did you notice one thing that is essential to our Lord’s story? The man pesters his friend not for himself, but for another to whom he is offering hospitality. The man is interceding for another. This is the very kernel of prayer: that it is part and parcel with love, of putting the other first and ourselves last. Christian prayer is always praise of God first, intercession for others next, and only lastly for ourselves. In fact that is why, for example, in the bidding prayers we should pray for ourselves in the very last place, after we have interceded for the Church, the world, our nation, our communities, those in special need, the afflicted, and the dead. Only after we have prayed for them do we pray for ourselves. If you do not believe me, check the formulas at the back of the missal. We pray best for ourselves when we pray first for others.
But this is not really a new insight from our Lord, as we heard in the first reading. There Abraham was following what our Lord would teach a thousand years later. He shamelessly besought the Lord to save the wretchedly sinful cities of the plain. Not only did he beseech, he haggled, extracting concession after concession from the Lord. The Lord shows no displeasure at this boldness. He accedes to every request. Abraham stops at ten good men for whom the city might be spared. Ten good men could not be found; the cities were destroyed in their sin.
Did Abraham fail? No. Did God not truly accept Abraham’s intercession? No. The failure was neither in Abraham nor in God, but in the lack of the ten good men, of the salt which leavens the dough, the flowers which scent the whole room. As we know, in the end it took not ten but one good man on whose account God agreed to spare not mere cities, but all humanity. In Christ we find both the one who intercedes to spare humanity and the one good man dwelling in the midst of humanity for whom God will agree to spare it.
Christ’s work must be renewed in every age. And so it is, in the Church and its Eucharist, Christ’s Body, the Body of Him who is the one righteous man. Today, as always, the Church intercedes for all humanity, and strives truly to manifest in her every member that truly righteous man, Jesus Christ our Lord, that no one might be lost. That, when it comes to it, is why we must persevere in prayer. The world cannot do without it.