The School of Prayer
17th Sunday of the Year. fr Martin Ganeri offers us a chance of seeing prayer as discipleship in the Christian life.
So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
This Sunday’s readings are about prayer and, more specifically about petitionary prayer. We are invited to pray to God for what we need in the expectation that God will answer our prayers and will give us what is good for us.
In Genesis we see Abraham bartering with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, beating down the price like a customer in an Oriental market place, a little more each time until Abraham gets God down to just ten people. In the Gospel the disciples ask Christ to teach them how to pray and He gives them the Lord’s prayer, with its simple set of petitions, and encourages them to persist in prayer with the vivid example of the reluctant friend, cajoled into giving what is wanted, despite every attempt to refuse.
So, we are invited to pray for concrete things, the things we need, the things we judge to be good for us. And such petitionary prayer is part of what we might call the dignity and fulfilment, even the adventure, of what it means to be human beings, created in the image and likeness of God. Thomas Aquinas tells us that God wills to bring about things in answer to our prayers. God gives us the dignity of being able to share in His work of providence by our own actions, in praying for things to come about, so that we can acquire confidence in God and recognise him as the origin of what is good for us.
However, if there is one kind of prayer that is unpopular with us and perhaps more unpopular with us in the modern age than ever before, it is such petitionary prayer. We feel reluctant to ask for concrete things, because we feel that very often such prayers are not answered.
Such a view is understandable, but wrong. Faith tells us that God does answer all our prayers. However, the consequence of what faith tells us must be true is perhaps even more difficult for us to understand and accept. We must believe that God does answer all our prayers, but the reality must then be that the answer is so often no, no to the particular thing that we ask for. God does bring about good things in answer to our prayers, but what that good might be is often very different from any expectation and understanding we might have. If we ask, it is given to us; if we seek, it is found; and if we knock, the door is opened, but what is given and found is not what we might have expected.
And, at this point, we are challenged to undertake a difficult, but very worthwhile, journey in the purification of our desires, as we seek to make better sense of what are the goods that God wants us to pray for, so that there can be a better conformity of what we ask for and what God gives, so that our will can be conformed more fully to God’s will. Prayer schools us in our faith and forces us to recognise ways in which we settle for lesser goods or even wrong goods.
And it’s here that we come to the recognition that for such purification of our desires we have to be open to the Spirit praying within us, conforming our prayers to the will of God. As St Paul teaches in the letter to the Romans: ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8: 26).
Such a journey in the purification of our desires as we persist in prayer, docile to the Spirit working within us, will scarcely remove the difficulties we often have in making sense of God’s providence. We will end up sometimes silent like Job in the face of the mystery of God. And yet the more deeply we enter the journey of prayer, the more concrete our relationship with God becomes, the more truly we can call God, ‘Father,’ and the more fully we can realise the wonderful dignity we do have as human beings, as called to share in the work of God in bringing about the good of the world.
Readings: Genesis 18:20-32 | Colossians 2:12-14 | Luke 11:1-13