For some, prayer is too personal to talk about. For others, it’s best left to experts to talk about. For yet others, it’s an impenetrable mystery, impossible to talk about. But everything Jesus in this gospel teaches the disciples about prayer reassures us that all of these views are wide of the mark. In one sense, of course, nobody can teach anybody anything, other than how to learn.
But in this gospel Jesus doesn’t so much teach them how to pray as invite them to join him in prayer, to pray as he does. By implication, he teaches them that prayer is a gift that only God can give; but it’s a gift given to everyone, even if, for many, it lies dormant. What’s more, it’s given with the gift of life itself. Prayer is built into our nature, created as we are by God in his own image and likeness.
For that reason, praying, like breathing, is natural, necessary, and even unavoidable. We don’t so much learn how to do it as become aware that it happens, that it is part of how we are made. As a Carthusian monk once put it: that anybody should teach us to pray is like someone teaching the wind to blow, or the ear to listen, or the eye to see.
We can’t not pray, any more than we can’t not be. Prayer is the response of our whole being to the Ineffable Mystery that has not only given us human life, but who desires to share with us his own divine life. Prayer makes explicit the deepest truth of our lives, namely that our existence is utterly gratuitous, given to us out of sheer love, never to be withdrawn, and never less than astonishing: “It is an astonishment to be alive, and it behoves you to be astonished.”
Desire and confidence are the key. Every desire, from the most superficial to the most noble, including even the most shameful, is an echo of the desire, deeper than all others, whether acknowledged or not, that we all share by nature, not choice: a desire that makes us the kind of creatures that we are. The desire for God is written into our very nature. Time and again, the psalms, for instance, speak of this deepest of all desires. O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting. Even my body pines for you, like a dry, weary land without water. Psalm 62. Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is thirsting for you, my God. Psalm 42.
But prayer is rooted also in confidence that we have been created for no other reason than to receive all that God wills to give us. We can be confident that he not only hears every prayer, however halting or hesitant, but also answers every prayer, even if only with time we come to realise it. That confidence is given expression when, in answer to the disciples’ request, Jesus teaches them (and us) to call God ‘Father’, as he does.
Just how astonishing this is, is concealed by the fact that the English and Greek fail to convey the intimacy of the spoken Aramaic word, ‘Abba’, which Jesus himself used. ‘Abba’ is the word that initially a child would use, but which often persisted into adulthood, rather as Italians, even in old age, sometimes still call their father, ‘Babbo’. Jesus, in other words, reveals to us what we otherwise would never know, namely, that we share in the intimacy of his relationship to the father and so can have the unwavering confidence that a child can (or should be able to) have in a doting father.
The ‘Our Father’ or, as it has been known since the time of St Cyril of Carthage (d 285) ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, was said by St Thomas Aquinas to be “the most perfect of prayers”, simply because “God himself taught us this prayer”.
On any reading, it is one of the most precious parts of the gospel and a good case might be made for the Our Father being the only prayer we ever say. But Aquinas comments: Our Lord instituted this prayer, not that we might use no other words when we pray but rather than, in our prayers, we might have none but these things in view, no matter how we express them or think of them.
And …whatever words we may be using we are not saying anything other than what is laid down in the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, we pray, primarily, with our hearts, long before words reach (or don’t) reach our lips. That’s why St Paul can say, “Pray constantly”: he doesn’t mean that we should be for ever on our knees or never out of the chapel. We pray first and foremost in all our daily living and loving and, as St Francis says about preaching, occasionally we might use words. Our explicit vocal prayers are only the tip of an iceberg. Whatever words we might (or might not) use are consummated in a silence that is not the mere absence of sound but a stillness which, like love, surpasses all words. Love is the origin and purpose of prayer; love is the origin and purpose of everything: which is to say that God, Love Itself, is the origin and point of everything. No one expressed this ultimate yet intimate truth better than St Francis of Assisi, in both his life and in these words, which we’re told he uttered with great frequency and fervour: Deus meus et omnia, My God and my all.