“Prayer,” wrote St. John of Damascus, “is a raising up of the mind to God or a petitioning of God for what is fitting.” Put another way, prayer can involve the contemplation of the Trinity or the casting of our cares upon the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As the great spiritual writers emphasize, prayer is conversation of a most unique and significant sort. “The chief exercise of prayer,” wrote St. Francis de Sales in his “ Treatise on the Love of God,” “is to speak to God and to hear God speak in the bottom of your heart.”
Today’s Gospel reading is all about prayer and its place in our lives. It includes the shorter version of the Our Father, followed by further explanation by Jesus, which touches upon four key themes.
The first is petition. Petitionary prayer is a fundamental form of prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the “vocabulary of supplication in the New Testament is rich in shades of meaning of meaning, ” including to “ask, beseech, plead, invoke, entreat, cry out, even ‘struggle in prayer’” (No. 2629). The version of Our Father recounted by St. Luke, for example, contains five petitions, or requests: 1) “hallowed be your name”; 2) “your kingdom come”; 3) “Give us each day our daily bread”; 4) “forgive us our sins”; and 5) “do not subject us to the final test. ” These speak to our humble admission of our reliance on God for both physical and spiritual nourishment and life.
The second theme is persistence. God’s familial love, which is evident throughout the Old Testament, is revealed fully by Jesus as fatherly and paternal in nature. Our heavenly Father knows everything, including what we need even before we ask for it. Like a good parent, he wishes to hear our requests and, also like a good parent, he doesn’t always respond the way we hoped or anticipated. St. Augustine observed that if a man woken in the middle of the night will finally respond to a request for bread, God, who doesn’t need sleep, awakens us from our spiritual sleep so we might ask and then receive. He taught that God wants us to ask again and again so our hearts will expand in order to receive what God really wants to give us. And St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that our prayers don’t move God, as God is the unmoved mover. But our prayer is God already working within us, prompting us to order our lives according to his will.
Third, there is this promise: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find. …” Because we are wayward and willful children, we need to be taught what to ask for, and how to ask for it — hence the Our Father. And we begin by expressing our desire that God’s name be set apart and kept sacred, for he alone is worthy of worship. Once again, the asking is for our benefit. “We pray ‘Hallowed be thy name,’” St. Cyprian wrote, “not that we wish that God may be made holy by our prayers but that his name may be hallowed in us.”
The promise is fulfilled in the fourth theme: participation in the divine life. Only those united to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, can be holy and share in the life and love of the Trinity. We pray for God’s kingdom to come because the kingdom is sharing in the divine life. Those in the kingdom have been made a new creation by the king and are nourished by the sacraments — especially the “daily bread” of the Eucharist.
Pray. Petition the Father. Be persistent. Cling to the promise. Participate in the divine life.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.