How to become friends with God through prayer
A Reflection for Saturday of the Third Week in Lent
Find today’s readings here.
Every night before dinner in my community, we say grace. I get this is not an unusual practice for a religious community—stay with me. There are those who effortlessly weave words together to encompass the often heavy matters of the world that day and the requests for prayer they have accrued from people around them. Then there are some, like me, who have their own version of grace that they recite, over and over, with little divergence. And there are those who simply begin, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts…”
We can see differences in approaches to prayer with the Pharisee and the tax collector in today’s readings. One way of reading—the most common way— this Gospel leads us to make evaluative judgments about why the tax collector’s prayer is clearly better than that of the Pharisee. The common argument would be that the tax collector is honest and direct, and gets to the point, with God. While the Pharisee is meandering and offers God a litany of excuses for why he is not that bad, especially in comparison with the rest of the people around him who are “greedy, dishonest, adulterous,” and don’t “fast twice a week,” and “pay tithes.” Or could it just be that each one is praying as honestly as he can, and as best as he knows God? Both are honest. They are, it seems to me, coming at God from different perspectives. Still, we are told, both “made the journey up to the temple area to pray.”
Their prayer is not unlike the different prayer styles witnessed in my community at meals. There is no pretense or right way to pray—each one prays as he can.
Composing the perfect prayer is something of an art. Some people can, at a moment’s notice, offer beautiful, coherent and meaningful words to invoke God’s grace. Their prayers really do appear to rise up like incense as a fragrant offering to God. But not all people share such compositional gifts and ease, and come to God stumbling—even saying the wrong thing. In all cases, God listens and instructs.
Prayer is an opportunity to grow together in spiritual companionship as God’s family. Even if it’s less than a minute once a week, make time to pray as a community, a family, a couple.
But if you need a refresher course on what to say—or not—and how to be present to God in prayer, you might find your way back simply by praying the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, and to do so in the tried and tested way or find new ways of praying an old prayer.
While it may be rote and expected, the “Our Father” is the one prayer that everyone can immediately launch into; we know the script and we seem to never tire of it or want for something new. Like the more traditional prayer of grace before meals, it is instantly familiar and comfortable and rolls off our tongues—we can even sing it with a certain degree of confidence. Blessedly, it is also pretty short.
Here are some lessons we can derive for our prayer from the simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer.
1. Pray together. So much in our daily lives is done in isolation. Even if we spend much of the day with people, around an office, on the daily commute or in a carpool, much of what we do in the day is done in solitude, between us, a keyboard and maybe the earphones that suck into our ears. Prayer is an opportunity to grow together in spiritual companionship as God’s family. Even if it’s less than a minute once a week, make time to pray as a community, a family, a couple. If nothing else, the next time you pray the “Our Father” at Mass savor the collection of voices that surrounds you as you as God to “forgive us our daily trespasses.”
If your prayer, old or new, is leading you into love and closer friendship with God, don’t change a thing.
2. Keep it short. Prayer should not feel like a chore or an indulgence—both will become exhausting. Even enclosed monastic communities have set times for communal and personal prayer, and get on with the stuff of daily life outside of those times. Set a time for prayer and do your best to stick with it—even if it is as simple as saying just an “Our Father” or “A Hail Mary.” The practice of prayer is valuable in itself because it creates a moment in our day that is set apart for God, a time to remember God’s goodness and action in our lives.
3. Pray the same old thing in a new way. Having said rote prayers should not be changed or dismissed. I want, in typical Jesuit fashion, to offer a counterpoint—or, maybe, just a cautionary note. We can get stuck in our old ways. Our prayer can start to feel mechanical and boring, but that doesn’t mean you need to give up the ancient words and start composing your own prayers (although I certainly encourage you to try that as well). Instead, pray the “Our Father” in a different way. It seems our forebears in faith may have suffered a similar frustration, so St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises offered a few new ways of praying the Lord’s Prayer.
(i) For the length of the Lord’s prayer, take time to consider how God, our Lord, sees you (I have explained this is a previous reflection). It’s a multi-tasker’s dream: Say the “Our Father” and imagine the expression on God’s face looking upon you as you pray.
(ii) Pray the prayer Jesus gave us really slowly, word for word, allowing yourself to savor and meditate upon each word—which also contradicts my second point.
In the end, though, it is not about the specific words we use in the prayer, or even what we do when praying. If your prayer, old or new, is leading you into love and closer friendship with God, don’t change a thing.
Get to know Ricardo da Silva, associate editor
What are you giving up for Lent?
What I have given up for Lent this year is laughable and silly. And yet, it is the first time in a long time that I have been able to stick with it. Not to extend into a treatise, it has taught me a few things. First, simple is best. Second, it is the simple things you remember the most. Third, because you remember the thing often, you often remember what you gave up the thing for: Jesus.
Do you cheat on Sundays?
I have extended the Lenten fast to Sundays this year. A few years ago I subscribed, strongly, to the fact that “Sundays are exempt from the Lenten penance because we celebrate the resurrection,” but in keeping with the “back to basics” theme of this year, I’ve gone back to my old ways, and will only suspend the penance after the Easter Vigil.
Favorite non-meat recipe
Read what I said about Aubergine parmigiana last year. And yes, it’s an aubergine, allow me that. Also, I can’t remember the last time I had it.
Favorite Easter artwork
“The Road to Emmaus,” Janet Brooks-Gerloff, 1992
Favorite Easter photo/memory
Last year, I shared a photo of my first Easter as a deacon. Here is my first time presiding at the Easter Sunday Mass at St. Francis Xavier in New York, where I am also associate pastor.