One of the things I most enjoy about the calling I`ve been given is the opportunity to reflect with people about what`s going on when we pray. It really is quite wonderful what happens when you ask someone if they ever pray. I mean, folk are often very generous in sharing things which matter very much to them… and so one always treads respectfully…
….but these answers people give are also quite revealing about what they really believe about themselves and the world…. or for that matter whether they`ve really given such things much thought at all.
Of course, it might be that praying just simply doesn`t figure too much in one`s daily living…. Often people say it`s where they turn when they`ve got a problem…. but even that …. resorting to the spiritual equivalent of `cupboard love` ….says quite a lot about the assumptions on which we`ve based our lives.
Anyway, however you respond to this sort of thing, you probably won`t be too surprised to hear me saying that I think we really ought to give it more thought than we do…. For what it`s worth, I always begin with old saying, “When all`s said and done … far more is said than done”. That is to say… in some respects it`s very easy to TALK about praying… I mean, anyone can theorise about God.. but the question is “Are we going to get down to it?” So, I want this morning to offer just two very simple observations that I hope might, at least keep you on the right track.
Curiously, the Scripture verse which has been with me all week is a few words from Matthew`s Gospel. Jesus didn`t seem have the problem of trying to get people to pray… so much as trying to get them not to show off about it. So he told them:“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret”. (Matthew 6.6)
OK, so the first thing I would suggest- if I might put it colloquially- is always “Remember who you`re talking to”. In other words, notice that whenever Jesus teaches about prayer it`s THIS which is at the heart of it all. He uses that word `Father` in speaking of God. It`s a word that implies intimacy, relationship, depth and warmth.
This is why St. Ignatius invites us, when we begin to pray to ask ourselves the simple question, “How does the Lord God look upon you”. Since he is `Father`… we`re invited to use our imagination… to enter into prayer conscious perhaps, of a smile, a look of understanding or of compassion. At very least a look of welcome. So frankly, you could do a lot worse than just sit still for ten minutes, slowly and quietly speaking the word `Father`…. and see where that leads you.
So, straight away you might see that praying is here being defined and shaped not in terms of whether I get something from it, or as we sometimes say `whether it worked`… but rather whether we`re being led into a place of `relationship`…. a perhaps quieter place where so many of the things which absorb us are seen to be more superficial than we realised.
The second thing Christ does is to invite us to go behind closed doors….. This is interesting isn’t it? But what happens if you pause for a moment and ask… “Who am I when no one else is looking?” What`s it like for me when I`m behind closed doors…..? You see this is the one who is called to engage in prayer… the one we truly ARE… not the one made up for public consumption….. Again, Jesus was having to deal with people who were showing off about their religion and making loud and showy prayers on the street corners…bu in contrast he says, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret”. (Matthew 6.6) Without getting too heavy about it… behind closed doors is the place of honesty isn`t it?
And when you get your picture of God right… “Father”.. then in the quiet space you can come clean about what`s going on…. There`s a sharing of truth. But how do we do this? Well, a good many of us find that we need to punctuate our day with moments to catch up with ourselves, don’t we? … if only the first cup of coffee in the morning; or whatever.. Well praying is similar…
You see, our relationships have two sides to them… On the one hand there`s the spontaneous stuff… the general, daily chit-chat … `who`s cooking tea tonight? What do we need from the shops? Who`s collecting the kids from school? And so on….. But on the other hand there`s the quieter, more focussed stuff were you catch up with how things are going. We need every so often to deliberately stop and to ask “How are you?”…. “How are WE?”
Essentially, we need both of these sides to our relationships. A relationship without spontaneity would be thoroughly dull and boring… but one that was all spontaneity would remain superficial and fragile… And again, the same is true of our praying. Yes, we can seek to be present to the Lord anywhere… of course we can; but we also need those focussed and deliberately more reflective times. The `behind closed doors` moments.
This I think is what Jesus is getting at. `Behind closed doors`….We`re following his example of deliberately seeking to deepen our relationship with the Father. And so it becomes clear that praying is less about us `asking for stuff` or seeking to change God ……so much as him asking questions of us…. and him putting us on a different and more life-giving track. We get the same kind of picture when we look more closely at our Gospel reading this morning. Did you notice, Jesus comes to the disciples `behind closed doors` – on this occasion it was a place of fear but nonetheless, a real `Honest to God`, scary time.
But you see this is where he meets them, re-orders them… and strengthens them for service. And maybe that`s something of what praying is about…….