I was amused to read in the introduction to Bede Frost’s book ‘The Art of Mental Prayer’ (published 1931) ‘ Some time ago an English diocesan Bishop addressed a questionnaire to his clergy in which he asked for information as to their teaching about, and practice of, prayer. The question did not receive a single answer!’ Fr Bernard Bassett SJ (1909-1988) wrote a lively little book titled ‘Let’s start praying again’: failure and difficulties in prayer, it would seem is a fact of life.
The disciples pleaded with Jesus ‘ teach us to pray as John taught his disciples’. Jesus’ response is the Lord’s Prayer. There are two passages in the Gospel that contain Jesus’ teaching Luke 11 and Matthew 6. Teaching other people to pray has always been problematic. It is one thing to ask for guidance it is another to follow it. Tragically, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus’ asks Peter James and John to support him in his prayer and they fell to sleep The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak: so is the mind and will.
Simplicity is the essence of Jesus’ teaching about prayer. First, prayer is private and prayer is silent. ‘Go into your own room and close the door, and your Father who sees what is secret will see you.’ (Matthew 6: 6) Note, not hear you – but see. Prayer (our personal relationship with God) begins will being apart and alone. To close the door to isolate ourselves with God is the essence of prayer. It is the silent, conscious recognition of presence – both of God and ourselves.
Secondly, use few words. Be direct, open and honest. Use the Lord’s Prayer as the template: it’s petitions will guide your prayer to seek holiness, to pursue the justice and mercy of the kingdom in daily life, to look to God to meet daily need, to seek protection in the trials and difficulties of each day and against spiritual enemies and opposition.
The Lord’s Prayer looks several ways. It is a corporate prayer beginning with OUR Father. Be mindful of how small or large your ‘our ‘ is. Who does it include and exclude. It is also an intercessory prayer in it’s praying for the Kingdom to come on earth. But it is a prayer that is powerfully directed at the person who prays – it is prayer to be renewed and reoriented around God’s will. It is one of our greatest gifts from the Lord.
Thirdly, keep at it! Never give up: keep seeking and knocking. There is a wilful bloody-mindedness sometime in prayer. The experience of a Novena (or nine days) of prayer soon teaches us how difficult it is to keep our mind, heart and will focussed on one intention in prayer.
Sometimes I wonder at the pursuit of ‘spiritualties’: Celtic, Franciscan, Benedictine, and Ignatian etc. For prayer to be real encounter it has to be simple and sustainable. At heart all Christian spirituality arises from dwelling in God and in His word. There is no such thing as second hand prayer. Hence the teaching ‘Go into your own room and shut the door.’ What could be simpler or more challenging?