“Jesus teaches us to pray” 17th Sunday Reflection
I have had the good fortune to work as a Salesian Priest in West Africa for a number of years. There is something special about Africa; there is a warmth in people who are welcoming and kind. In spite of the challenges they face, they have a cheerfulness and a hopeful attitude towards life. What gives them great strength is their faith, placing their trust in God. The memories that I cherish most are the moments of prayers and thanks-giving during Mass and night vigils when people burst out into song, dance and prayer, thanking God for the many blessings that have received. All the hardships and sorrows they face are forgotten as they get engaged in exultant prayer.
In contrast, when I was on a recent visit to a particular city in Italy, I observed hundreds of tourists flocking to get into the Cathedral, a real gem of art and architecture. One of the side doors was reserved for a Chapel, equally artistically exquisite, but reserved only for prayer. Sadly there was only a trickle going to the chapel. I couldn’t help asking myself, “Have we, here in the West, forgotten how to pray? Have we lost our connection with the spiritual realm?”
Today’s readings speak to us about prayer. I am sure that the apostles knew their prayers and would have often had recited the psalms and the different Jewish prayers. But, somehow, when they saw Jesus in prayer, they realised how far short they fell from the ideal. Our own understanding of prayer sometimes can be limiting, seeing it only as asking, or begging, for the things we need, and prayer can easily become an endless list of petitions. Perhaps that is why, as modern society has become more self-sufficient, we have lost touch with prayer, with the ability to spend time in quiet recollection.
In the Gospel, Jesus responds to the apostles request and teaches them how to pray, not so much by giving the words they have to say, but more importantly the spirit in which they should pray. The Lord’s prayer is quite familiar to most of us, but the version we hear in Luke’s Gospel is slightly different and has a more natural feel to it. The initial focus of the prayer is on God himself – if we truly love God our desire should be for God to be acknowledged and loved by all; that he truly reigns in people’s hearts.
Our particular needs only come secondary, but in expressing them there is an element of filial entrustment of oneself into God’s own providence. We entrust to him our present as we pray for our daily bread, our past as we ask forgiveness for our sins, and our future as we ask that we may be protected from trials.
Prayer at the end of the day is a relationship, a relationship of trust. We have a beautiful example of this in Abraham; who as a friend of God, he felt bold enough to keep on asking, to keep on knocking and searching, as he pleaded for the city to be spared. Jesus also invites us to be consistent (and persistent) in prayer, not so much in our demands, as to remain in relationship with God and be open to his gift of the Holy Spirit.
Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict were much impressed on their respective visits to Africa. Pope Benedict described Africa as the spiritual lung of the world, while Francis was taken by surprise to see the vibrant joy that Africans have for the Gospel. May we also be able to discover the joy that is to be found in prayer, to joy to be found in being in a relationship with God.