‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ (Luke 11:1)
An Army padre used to sit every day, twice a day outside his makeshift church to say morning and evening prayer. Every day, twice a day he sat with his scarlet coloured copy of the Church of England Daily Prayer book in his hands. Every day, twice a day he encountered the psalms and the scripture readings contained in the book drawing new life from the words he prayed.
One day, towards the end of the regiment’s tour of Afghanistan one of the soldiers seeing the padre recollected in his regular spot with his usual well-thumbed book approached him and giving in to his curiosity said, “You’re still reading that book, Padre. When are you going to finish it?” The padre didn’t mind the comment, though perhaps it took him a while to make the private understand that the red book which never seemed to end contained something called the daily office – the prayer of the whole wide Church – which like the ebb and flow of the tide never ceases, ever bringing with it new life.
However, a few days later the soldier returned and seeing the chaplain in the same usual situation approached him again. It was late in the evening and a dangerous emotional cocktail of grief at the death of some fellow comrades and a case of serious homesickness had struck the spirit of the soldier to ground. “Padre, how do you pray to God?” He asked. “How do I learn?”
The chaplain understood the situation, quickly left his red book and approached the soldier’s question in the simplest way he could think of. That wasn’t really the time to teach the young man how to interpret the mildly complicated rubrics of a prayer book; that was the time to start from the basics. “Talk to him” the chaplain said. “Just talk to him as you would to someone who knows you very, very well.” Then, seeing a little puzzlement in the soldier’s eyes, he added, “Talk to him as you would to a best pal, to your mum, to your dad. Tell him what is on your heart right now, knowing that God is there to listen.”
Today’s gospel reading focuses on prayer understood as a heartfelt, even nagging, expression of an intimate filial relationship with God. Today’s gospel reading sees the disciples enquiring about how to pray after they observe Jesus recollected in the presence of the Father through prayer. “Lord” (and observe how they call Jesus with this title!), “Lord, teach us how to pray” they ask and then, almost by way of justification for their question, they add, “as John the Baptist taught to his disciples”.
Like the soldier in my earlier story the disciples must have seen something captivating in Jesus’ attitude to prayer, something they wanted to experience as well. Also, they did not want to appear less zealous, less holy than John’s disciples who prayed and fasted regularly. So the disciples probably sent one of their group to Jesus, perhaps the least shy among them, with a question, Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.
If we read in between the lines we see that they may as well have said, “John’s disciples fasted regularly and prayed in an orderly fashion; you, Lord, pray too in specific ways; we want to do the same.”
Jesus understands their situation but approaches their request in the most simple, most straightforward way possible. Never mind for a moment, what disciples of other prophets did; never mind the taxing prayer regime of ancient Judaism. He starts with them from the very basics and introduces them to talk to God as to someone who knew them very, very well; to talk to God as to their Father. This is the solid foundation on which the Christian prayer life can be built.
Structure, sacrifice, rhythm, and thoughtfulness are essential traits of a mature prayer life. Without these characteristics our prayer life risks to become whimsical, erratic, and full of silly repetitions. However, Jesus wants his disciples to understand that above and before all things prayer must preserve two qualities; first it has to be a genuine expression of a filial relationship with God – a Father/daughter or Father/son link of uttermost trust. Secondly, prayer must be persistent almost to the point of appearing pestering towards God.
Today’s gospel reading highlights an important aspect of the Christian faith – the Father/child relationship that is chiefly manifested in prayer. Through prayer we become imitators of Jesus who – though himself Lord – recollected himself in the presence of the Father with persistence throughout St Luke’s gospel. This aspect of our faith is also one of the most practical; it cannot be put easily into fanciful explanations, but it has to be experienced first-hand once we have been enticed by the example of Jesus and of the saints. So every time we feel our prayer life growing cold let us call to mind the request of the first disciples, Lord, teach us to pray.