Rev. Simon Tugwell notes that the very first thing we should know about prayer, according to St. Paul, is that we do not know how to do it. Paul makes this fact clear when he tells the Romans that
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. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27).
Because we don’t know what we are doing when we pray, God sends us help. The principal help he gives is the Spirit who, if you will, prays through us and in union with us. That doesn’t mean we are empty vessels and that every prayer that pops into our head is an oracular utterance of the Very Mind of God. It means that God the Holy Spirit guides and helps us to pray more and more like Christ in the power of His Sonship. And that, in turn, directs us back to the fact that Christ is our teacher in the school of prayer, especially in and through His inspired word in Scripture. With His disciples, we say, “Lord, teach us to pray!” and He does, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.
When we turn to Christ’s teaching on prayer we discover something odd: One of the many curiosities of the Christian tradition is that when Jesus undertakes to teach about prayer He begins by waving us all away from meaningless repetitive prayer:
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words (Mt 6:7).
. . . and in the next breath gives us a prayer that He obviously expects us to repeat — a prayer we have indeed repeated for 2,000 years: the “Our Father.” Is this a contradiction?
No. For Jesus is warning against meaningless repetition, not meaningful repetition. He has in view a sort of magical notion of prayer in which we can somehow gain power over the Unseen by mere repetition, or by getting just the right magic words so that God has to knuckle under to our will, like a djinn. There’s something at once childlike, superstitious, and savage in such a picture of prayer, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to fall into. It reduces God to something more like a capricious sprite who spends His days scrutinizing trivialities (“Was that ten ‘Hail Marys’ you said this decade or only nine? Denied!”), rather than a God who is Father and filled with love for His children.
Curiously, it is children who are most likely to fall into this way of praying, because they are the ones who really want what Evelyn Waugh referred to as “little systems of order.” It is the same spirit that half-believes that if we step on a crack we’ll break our mother’s back that constructs superstitious prayer practices that promise us “discipline” and instead deliver captivity to scruples and a vision of God as a kind of cosmic vending machine demanding correct change.
Against all such temptations to reduce God to a sort of faceless inscrutability awaiting the correct magic spell to subdue His power to our will, Jesus drives us in exactly the opposite direction: toward personal relationship. He wants childlike disciples, not childish ones. He makes this plain when He tells us to avoid the ways of the pagans, “for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:8).
That’s an odd thing to say if you think like a Greek logician. After all, if the Ground of Being knows what you need before you ask Him, then why ask? But Jesus’ logic was different. For Jesus, it is precisely because God knows us already that you can tell Him anything. In short, it’s all about a personal relationship for Jesus. Prayer is not addressed to a God who has faded into a faceless inscrutable Power. It is addressed to a thunderbolt who has revealed to us a Father’s face. That is why the prayer begins “Our Father,” and not “In the Name of Allah, Master of the Universe.” Jesus’ whole counsel on prayer can be summed in the words, “When you pray, say, ‘Father!'” When He gives His disciples the model prayer, this is where He begins.
And therefore, so will we in the coming weeks as we look at this most personal and intimate of prayers in order to understand better how to pray in the Spirit of the Son of God. Stay tuned!