I heard a story of a ship that was sinking in the middle of a storm. The captain called out to the crew and said, "Does anyone here know how to pray?" One man stepped forward and said, "Yes sir, I know how to pray." The captain said, "Wonderful, you pray while the rest of us put on life jackets - we're one short." Last Sunday, in the gospel story of Martha and Mary, we were reminded of the importance of regular prayer. I suggested that you take it as a challenge to pray regularly for at least five minutes each day. How did it go? When we start to pray regularly, we usually begin to notice difficulties. These difficulties are reflected in the joke we heard: 1) we find we don’t really know how to pray and 2) we discover that sometimes our prayers don’t seem to be answered. Jesus addresses these challenges in today’s gospel.
We all struggle with knowing how to pray. Praying is no easy or straight forward task. Many Catholics do not think that they enjoy a very good prayer life. They think everyone else has an amazing prayer life and that all everyone else has to do is close their eyes and they are immediately filled with the presence of God. This is nonsense! We all struggle with prayer, myself included. When I pray I seldom experience strong positive emotions. I can easily lose concentration and become distracted. I received a good reality check about the difficulty of prayer when I read an interview with the now deceased Cardinal Hume. Towards the end of his life this devout man was asked about his prayer life. He responded:
Oh, I just keep plugging away. At its best it’s like being in a dark room with someone you love. You can’t see them, but you know they’re there.
The disciples too must have had challenges praying otherwise we would not find them asking Jesus to teach them how to pray in today’s gospel. That the disciples and great Christians such as Cardinal Hume also struggled with knowing how to pray gives me hope. We all find prayer difficult.
Though prayer can be tough, an intimate, personal relationship with God is not beyond our capabilities. When asked by His disciples “teach us to pray”, Jesus gives them the “Our Father”. This prayer teaches so much about the nature of prayer. According to Christ, prayer is an incredibly intimate and personal thing. We are to call on God as we would our own father, with loving trust that He will provide for all our needs. In the end, prayer is a matter of the heart. We unite our hearts with God. We can do this simply by speaking to God in our hearts during the day, being open and honest about our joys and frustrations. We can also unite our hearts to God silently in a type of loving gaze. There is an interesting anecdote from the life of St. John Vianney. He would often notice a poor old peasant spending hours in prayer before the tabernacle, in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Eventually St. Vianney went and questioned the man about how he prayed, what does he did, what he said. The man responded: "Nothing. I just look at Him and He looks at me." Though prayer is challenging, it should foster this kind of intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Prayer gradually transforms the human heart, to make it more in accord with God’s. A huge obstacle in prayer can be the sense that God does not answer our prayers. We can ask for things in prayer and when it does not come to pass we can feel that God is not listening, that our prayer is useless. Even though we may not see any results, prayer always works. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Transformation of the praying heart is the first response to our petition” (CCC §2739). We ask for many things in prayer, but do we even know what is really good for ourselves? If I look back I see that there are some things that I asked God for in prayer that weren’t really what was best for me. I can see now that what actually happened to me at that moment, though not what I wanted, was actually what was best for me. When we pray God slowly changes our hearts so that we begin to desire what God desires for us. Hence in the Our Father we pray to God, “thy will be done”. There is a story that in a Soviet prison camp there was one prisoner who would get on his knees each day and pray. One day when he is praying with his eyes closed, a fellow prisoner walked by him and said with ridicule, "Prayers won't help you get out of here any faster." Opening his eyes, the praying prisoner answered, "I do not pray to get out of prison but to do the will of God." Prayer changes our heart so that we more and more desire to have God’s will done in our life.
Because of all the challenges that prayer poses, it is vital that we cultivate the virtue of perseverance in our prayer life. Today’s Gospel makes several things crystal clear regarding prayer. 1) God is a Father who loves us dearly and will always give us in time what is best for us, and 2) our job is to persevere in prayer, to keep asking God for what we desire, to always knock. We may ask, “why does God not just grant us what we want right away? Why does He wait?” I would like to answer that by taking as an analogy the way a particular species of bamboo grows. When you try to grow this bamboo from a seed, something peculiar happens. For the first year you water and fertilize the seed but little seems to happen, a small shoot only emerges from the soil. When you water and fertilize the seedling for a second year, nothing seems to happen, no growth is visible. The same for the third year, and the fourth year. Then during the fifth year something remarkable happens. When you water and fertilize the plant, it will grow close to 90 feet in just a couple months. What was going on during the first four years? During this time, the bamboo plant was growing a vast root system underground that would ultimately support the towering plant. When we ask for something in prayer, perhaps we are not yet ready to receive this gift or perhaps God has an even greater gift in mind. Like the plant, we lack the necessary roots. When we pray, it is like watering and fertilizing our soul so that our hearts – our root structure – can grow and become strong enough to receive the great gifts that God wants to give us. In order for our hearts to grow, we need to keep praying, we need to keep knocking. For this reason it is vital that we cultivate the virtue of perseverance in our prayer life.
Recently the world was able to witness an incredible testimony to the importance of prayer and perseverance. As many of you know, this past week Rio Di Janeiro has hosted the World Youth Day. A few nights ago was the prayer vigil, in which over three million young people joined the Holy Father to pray. The youth persevered in prayer late into the night, uniting their will with God. Surely their hearts were changed. It is a great source of inspiration and encouragement for me just to see the incredible images of this event showing the vast multitude of praying youth. Let us follow their example by persevering in prayer in the face of obstacles. Let us remain faithful to praying regularly each day so that God can transform our heart to better reflect the desires of His own.