How should we pray?

By F. Luis Casasus, General Superior of idente missionaries
Commentary on the Sunday Gospel of 28-7-2019, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Book of Genesis 18: 20-32; Letter to the Colossians 2: 12-14; Saint Luke11:1-13)

Jacob was a cunning, devious man who lived most of his life cheating, fighting, struggling against everyone, just so that he would get his way. He deceived his own aged and blind father, Isaac. He deceived his older brother, Esau, on at least two occasions and then, fearing for his life, Jacob fled from him. He went far away, got married and later, he deceived his father-in-law and fled from him.

In fact, the name Jacob means “supplanter”, meaning one who illegally takes something. A name that aptly describes his character. His whole life was characterized by struggling with people to cheat them and run away. One night, God, in His great mercy came to meet him. In the form of a man or an angel, but Jacob was a stubborn man. Instead of submitting, he now struggles with God.

The man struck Jacob on the hip and threw it out of joint (Gen 32: 25). Then Jacob stopped struggling. Now, with his handicap and weakness exposed, he finally submits and asks to be blessed; something that God had always wanted to do for him from the beginning. All he had needed to do was learn to trust God and submit to Him in faith instead of fighting or deceiving or running away.

God does bless him and gives him a new name, Israel. He is no longer Jacob, the deceiver. He is reborn as a new man with a new identity after his night encounter with God.

This episode in Jacob’s life has much to do with today’s First Reading. Both represent a struggle between God and man, where He tries to free us from our illusions, to rescue us from misery and vain desires, and involve us in his plans. This struggle, exchange or dialogue, finds its perfection in the Lord’s Prayer, where we ask to make us know what is his will, in order to make it our own and fulfill it.

But, as the first disciples, we have to continuously redefine and perfect the manner in which we pray, therefore we join them in their plea: Lord, teach us to pray.

* First of all, with the two examples of neighborly friendship and father-son kinship, Christ makes us see that confidence and persistence have to be the hallmarks of our prayer. It seems clear that persistence and confidence have to go hand in hand: How can we persevere in a relationship, not being confident about our partner?

Conversely, perseverance in prayer enhances our confidence and trust; as times goes by, we realize what are the fruits of prayer, we are then prompted to persist in our prayer and we can encourage others to do likewise.

Confidence and perseverance in prayer allow us to talk about a State of Prayer or Continuous Prayer. This is the experience of saints. Saint Paul ends one of his Letters saying: Always be joyful and never stop praying. Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ. This is what God wants you to do (1 Thes 5:16-18).

Continuous prayer is in harmony with our human nature.

Think about the most important relationship in your life right now. It might be your spouse, your parents, siblings or a very close friend. Now think about how and what you communicate with him when you are facing life changing decisions, financial troubles or family issues. How would you talk with him about life’s little and big events at some point? This is how we build relationships, transforming surface relationships into intimate friendships. As a result, this process causes us to continuously building trust.

Praying continuously is simply being mindful and letting God know what is going on in your life all day long. It means you begin letting God know about the decisions you are facing and asking for His input. It is telling Him when you are frustrated with what is happening at that very moment of the day. It is giving Him thanks and praise when you see how he has blessed you in the most extraordinary or simple ways. Praying continuously is involving Christ in all of your life and allowing him to guide you through your day, knowing that He is there in the good and bad and then “living in his presence” and sharing throughout the day with Him.

I think it is opportune to recall that the Our Father is not just a wise and beautiful formula, because it was recited by Jesus, but a wonderful and reliable blueprint to make possible this state of prayer in our heart.

In fact, the whole life of Christ was marked by prayer. This explains how He was able to combine tenderness with firmness, patience with urgency, as a result of his perfect relationship with the Father, a relationship established through prayer. He did not pray to ask favors, to avoid pain or to compel God to change his plans.

* Our understanding of prayer is too limited and oftentimes naïve. Sometimes we are like a boy who had been sent to his room because he had been bad. A short time later he came out and said to his mother: I’ve been thinking about what I did and I said a prayer. His mother said: That’s fine, if you ask God to make you good, He will help you. The boy replied: Oh, I didn’t ask Him to help me be good, I asked Him to help you put up with me.

We pray for the sick, for a son who got into bad company, for families with discord. We ask God’s blessing for the crops, and we ask for abundant apostolic fruits. Why pray if God already knows what we need and is always willing to give us every good?

Even more, in the First Reading we see how Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah…but eventually both towns and everyone who lived in them were destroyed (Gen 19: 23-25).

What are, then, the fruits of prayer? Most of times, outside of ourselves the reality will remain the same as before or even worse: the disease continues, the conflicts will remain, the person we pray for does not change…, but inside everything will be different. If the mind and heart are no longer the same, through the look with which we contemplate our situation, the world and the brothers become different…the prayer got its result; it has been heard.

Prayer does not change God; it opens our minds, changes our hearts. This inner transformation cannot be realized -except in the case of some miracles- in a few moments.

We would like a complacent God, who grants our desires. He, instead, tries to free us from our illusions, to rescue us from misery, and involve us in his plans. Our Father knows what we need (Mt 6: 8). Prayer is thus a struggle with God, as the pleading of Abraham for Sodom and Gomorrah or the night wrestle of Jacob who does not stop until he is blessed. Who surrenders to God comes out a winner.

From this perspective, we can understand why we the Hail Mary is repeated in the Rosary and the Trisagio and why, in our supplication to Mother Mary, we conclude by saying: so that we may be saints.

When the events take their seemingly absurd course in spite of our prayers, we cry: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:2).

Christian prayer is always answered, but it is hard to give up our way of reading the events. The ways of God are not always easy and pleasant; they require efforts, renouncements, sacrifices. To reach the interior adherence to the will of the Lord, we must pray… for a long time. When Jesus offers the parable of the importunate neighbor, He is teaching us that prayer gets results only if it is prolonged. Not because God wants to be asked for a long time before granting something, but we are slow to assimilate God’s thoughts and feelings.

The following story (often repeated in real life!) illustrates the necessary confidence and persistence in prayer, as well as the way we gradually discover through prayer the infinite mercy of God:

The only child of a mother was confined in a hospital, seriously sick. She cared for him as best she could. When some relatives dropped by, she asked them to attend to her son while she went to the Chapel. On her knees and in tears before the Blessed Sacrament, she began by acknowledging God as the Source of life, and thanked Him for the gift of her son who has brought joy to her life. Then she beseeches God to spare him. The worse his condition became, the harder she prayed. But her prayers notwithstanding, her son died. Her relatives and friends were worried how she would take this turn of events. But they were surprised to see her take her son’s death in peace…

When asked how come, she answered: What I prayed for was what I wanted. But during my prayer, there was something in me that said: “Let go, let God.” Thus at one point, I finally said: Your will be done, Lord.’ With my child’s death, it was obvious that God did not go along with what I wanted. Though painful, I accepted His will wholeheartedly. He knew best.

One of the most powerful and necessary consequences of prayer is our awareness of having been forgiven. This is why Saint Paul, in today’s Second Reading, gladly proclaims the power of God’s mercy over the law and over the consequences of our sins, giving us a new life and demolishing the walls of fear.

In the Our Father, we say: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. The reason is simple: it is only possible to receive God’s forgiveness if we forgive others who have hurt us. Otherwise, the forgiveness we receive and absorb would be incomplete as our hearts would not be totally healed and our pains not completely released. When we are in peace after forgiving our fellowmen, we can have the capacity to being forgiven. Our heart cannot open up to the Father’s love if he refuses to be reconciled with the brother and sister.

When we say: Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, we declare to the Father our willingness to get involved, to collaborate with Him because this promise of good will come true.

We do not know neither the day nor the hour (Mk 13:32), but we are certain that our prayer will be heard. Even if we have turned away from Him, like the prodigal son, we know that we can come back and be well received and incorporated into the mission of the Kingdom.

The name of God is not hallowed or glorified when we speak well of him. A heart freed from hatred, a sinner who becomes happy, a family that has rebuilt understanding and peace sanctify the name of God, because they are proof that his word performs wonders.

This is why in the Lord’s Prayer we continue to beg the coming of the kingdom of God because this kingdom is just beginning: But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, would not this mean that the Kingdom of God has come upon you? (Lk 11:20)

The Our Father makes us avoid tragic misunderstandings, helping us to discern between the kingdoms of this world, by which you and I are always flattered and seduced, and the kingdom of God.

We acknowledge that our abilities, the food, our strong or weak health, the strength to resist temptation and everything we have is a gift from God.

Manna is never said to be ours: it fell from the sky; it was a unique gift from God (Ne 9:20). Bread instead is both a gift of God and fruit of man’s sweat, of man’s toil and sacrifice. The bread blessed by God is the one produced “together” with the brothers, the one obtained from the earth that God has destined for all and not just for a few.

Some of us are not very sensitive to the meaning of bread. In traditional cultures the bread was much more than just food to consume. It evoked feelings, emotions, relations of friendship and it was a reminder of the generosity and sharing with the poor. Bread could not be eaten alone; it was always to be shared with the hungry. It should neither be thrown in the garbage nor cut with the knife, but gently broken. Only man’s hands were worthy to touch it because it had something sacred: man’s work and God’s blessing.

Finally, we do not ask not to be tempted, but not to be conquered by temptation, which is to be led into temptation. The evil from which we ask to be delivered, the enemies of our soul, can make us stumble and therefore we declare our willingness to accept and welcome the necessary grace to abandon the “logic of this world” and to adhere to the “logic of the Gospel.”

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