"Lord, teach us to pray. Are there any words in the Gospel more poignant than these? Here is a phrase that pulls us to the very core of belief - a request that cries out for consolation, instruction, guidance and hope. Throw us a lifeline, Jesus. We need help. Teach us to pray! After two millennia, this plaintive call continues to echo in the human heart. Give us the words. Help us find a way to express what we feel, honestly and humbly, and maybejust maybeallow us to glimpse the face of God. Teach us. Please.
I have struggled with prayer for most of my life. For some, it comes naturally, like a sneeze or a smile. Not for me. I have a hard time escaping the fact that I am inadequate to the task. I cannot help feeling that God is peering over my shoulder as I try to pray, and shaking his head in disbelief. You must be kidding, God says to himself. You call that praying? Give me a break!
For the past two-and-a-half years, my prayer muscles have been getting an arduous workout. I am in formation to become a permanent deacon. As a result, prayer is not a conscious, elective act anymore; it has by necessity become habitual. Candidates for the diaconate pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day. And we seek out whatever private moments we can to reflect and review, meditate and mull. But the words of the Gospel - teach us to pray! - seem more urgent to me now. How do we come to learn what seems at times so daunting? How do we dare to talk to God?
As children we begin - as the disciples began - by learning the words to a short, simple prayer. We memorize. We practice. Our Father who art in heaven. Or maybe it’s Now I lay me down to sleep. We hail Mary and give glory to the Trinity and learn, with small fingers, to finger small beads while walking in procession on a hot May morning.
Teach us to pray.
Our lips form syllables and we fold our hands and close our eyes and trust that somehow God hears. Sundays come and go. We shuffle awkwardly back to the pew after Communion, a sliver of the divine dissolving on the tongue, and we take him in, fully, and bow our heads and pray. We pray in gratitude. We pray in servitude. We pray for snow on Christmas. We pray for a pony. We pray for a better report card. We pray that some kindness will befall us, a brush with grace, to keep our spirits up. Amen.
In time, we learn to create prayers on our own. Dear God, help me pass this test. By practice and trial and error, we develop an ongoing conversation with the invisible presence. Hey, God, it’s me again. We ask - sometimes for favors, sometimes for mercy, sometimes for some intangible sign that all will be well, that he is in charge, guiding and directing the affairs of the universe. We knock, and we wait for the door to open.
Teach us to pray.
Somehow, in our praying, we learn to stop talking and to listen. This is perhaps where we find the deepest and most enduring meaning of prayer, as we discover to our astonishment that it is not a monologue after all. It is a dialogue. The one to whom we pray has something to say. We engage God in conversation, heart to heart. We seek moments to whisper to him and then listen for his response. What’s that you say? Really? In the stirring of the wind, or the stirring of the heart, we hear most clearly the word. It may not be uttered, it may not even make a sound, but it is heard nonetheless.
So it has been for century after century in the hills of Judea, in cloisters in Italy, in classrooms from Kyoto to Quebec. It has been this way with Carmelites, Jesuits, Cistercians and Franciscans. It has been this way with plumbers and priests, doormen and doctors. We confront ourselves in confronting him and asking again for the most generous and heartfelt of favors:
Teach us to pray.
For me, it is as much a quest as a question. As I develop a more habitual prayer life, I find myself on a journey, walking through unfamiliar terrain, seeking an elusive figure who disappears behind the tree just ahead. Where am I headed? What does he want? What am I hearing?
The Spirit calls. I look up from my work, put it aside and follow. I have books to read, thoughts to absorb, papers to write and deadlines to meet. But he continues to call, and I go. Around bends and through thickets, across streams and deep valleys, I pursue the one who has been pursuing me, until the breathless moment when I encounter him in a clearing, and he turns to meet me, face to face, and I can finally open my lips to speak.