LENT: PRAYER, FASTING, ALMSGIVING AND CONFESSION
Let us now elaborate further on our spiritual fuel, prayer, by answering the following questions: What is prayer? How not to pray? How to pray?
WHAT IS PRAYER?
“Prayer is a conversation with God” (Clement of Alexandria in A. P. Castle, Quotes and Anecdotes [Suffolk: Kevin Mayhew, 1994], p. 527). However, most often we make prayer a monologue: we speak to God, but we don’t allow time to listen to Him also. “How can you expect God to speak in that gentle and inward voice which melts the soul, when you are making so much noise with your rapid reflections [and talking]? Be silent, and God will speak again” (Francois Fenelon in Quotes and Anecdotes, p. 296).
Besides the period of silence that we observe during a prayer time, God speaks to us through the Scriptures. So let us make the reading of the Bible part of our prayer time.
HOW NOT TO PRAY?
The fuel of a car has its specific tank. It will be of no use to fill the radiator tank with the fuel; in fact, it will be a disaster to do that. Similarly one can “waste” his/her prayers, if they are not properly channelled. Hence let us consider “how not to pray?” Jesus Christ gives us some points about “how not to pray”. He says: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. … And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Mt. 6:5, 7, NIV).
In this text, our Lord mentions two things we should not do when praying. In the first place, since prayer is not a conversation with bystanders but with God, our prayer should not aim at impressing the former. Is it not odd that in speaking to someone on phone one intentionally speaks aloud just to impress bystanders and in the process incurs the displeasure of the person at the other end of the line, because of his loudness and bragging on issues unrelated to their conversation. Secondly, no show of eloquence or multiplication of words impresses God. In fact, this displeases God, because it betrays trust in God; for He is not a God who has to be convinced by us in order to act in our favour. After all, as Jesus says, God is our Father who knows what we need before we ask Him (Mt. 6:8). So, we should rather approach Him with faith: only by faith can we please God (Heb. 11:1-2).
Let me add another point on “how not to pray”. It is a common practice among some Christians today to be shooting guns and arrows and throwing fires with all the passion that goes with these acts. I find nowhere in the gospels when Jesus prayed in this manner; nor do I find anywhere in the New Testament when the apostles and the other disciples prayed in this way. This is not a true Christian spirit of prayer. Unfortunately, some Ghanaian and other African movies do encourage this sort of prayer. Prayer, as we have said, is a conversation with God; and if there is any battle against a spiritual enemy it is God, who sees the enemy, who fights for us (cf. 2 Chron. 20:17), after all we cannot see the enemy. Let us stop pouring the fuel of prayer into the wrong tank.
HOW TO PRAY?
How then do we pray? First let us consider the pre-conditions of prayer; and then look at the format of prayer. The first pre-condition is that we should pray with faith. Secondly, personal prayers should be done in private, with our attention on only God; for our conversation is with Him. For this reason, Jesus says that “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Mt. 6:6). Thirdly, prior to prayer one should have forgiven whoever might have offended him/her. For this reason, after teaching the “Lord’s Prayer” (Mt. 6:9-13), Jesus stated: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Mt. 6:14-15).
As to the format of prayer, please read the homily entitled, “HOW DO I PRAY?” on this website.
By Msgr. John Kobina Louis