10 October 2012

Prayer as a tool for sinners

27th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

The disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray. . .” He responds by giving them The Lord's Prayer. Because he gives his disciples The Lord's Prayer in response to their request for instruction in prayer, we assume that the prayer he gives them is how we ought to pray. And so, we recite the Lord's Prayer at every celebration of the Eucharist; many times while praying the rosary; and pretty much anytime we feel the urge to talk to God. It's the perfect prayer. We praise God. We petition Him for our needs. We beg forgiveness. And we ask to be spared the trails of temptation. Not only is it the perfect prayer, it is also an excellent summary of Christian teaching, focusing squarely on the necessity of humility, the need for us to acknowledge our total dependence on God in our daily growth toward holiness. Notice that Jesus doesn't give us a particular posture for prayer. He doesn't tell us to sing the prayer or chant it or rush through it like an auctioneer. There are no special garments or hats or jewelry to wear. In fact, the perfection of this prayer rests in its comprehensive simplicity, its all-encompassing restraint as a means of talking to God. If prayer shapes the one praying, how does The Lord's Prayer mold a Christian into a saint? 

Let's be as clear as possible here: prayer does nothing—absolutely nothing—to God or for God. He doesn't need our prayer. Our prayer cannot change His mind or influence His disposition towards us. The promises He made to our ancestors in faith have been fulfilled in Christ Jesus and every grace we will ever need has already been bestowed. To believe that prayer elicits a response from God implies that we have some kind of control over His will; that we—His creatures—can alter His will. This idea turns faith into magic and a prayer into a spell. Prayers are not incantations that guarantee us the results we desire. Let's remove from our way of thinking about prayer any notion that we are capable of generating or procuring or guaranteeing a gift from God through prayer. True humility—the basis of all prayer—is achieved through perfect surrender, through total detachment from any thought, word, or deed that suggests we are in charge of the blessings we are given. St. Augustine puts it succinctly, “Man is a beggar before God.” If all of this is true, why pray at all? Why petition God for our needs if every gift we will get has already been given? Why bother? 

Prayer is a tool for turning sinners into saints. Think of prayer as a carving knife, whittling away sin to reveal the saint underneath. Think of prayer as a hot bath, soaking away the grime and ache of sin to produce a freshly scrubbed and relaxed soul. Think of prayer as a visit with God where you receive all the gifts He has to give you. Though He is always with us, we are not always with Him. So, everything about prayer is designed to put us fully, consciously in His presence. Words, images, gestures, posture, touching all the senses so that we are fully, consciously engaged in giving Him thanks and praise for His graces. The more we carve, the harder we scrub, the longer we visit, the more acutely aware of His presence we become, and the more fervently we receive His gifts, the better able we are to say, “Thank you, Lord!” Prayer is how we learn to be better beggars before our God. Not b/c God needs us to be beggars, but b/c beggars are truly free to enjoy every gift they are given, every gift they receive. Pride cannot beg. And pride cannot gratefully receive a gift. Saints are sinners who have learned to beg God for His mercy and receive His mercy with thanksgiving. 

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  1. This is good - nice and simple and straight-forward.

    Particularly liked the final paragraph and "everything about prayer is designed to put us fully, consciously in His presence". I have found that my prayer changes as I change, or perhaps more accurately, as I allow myself TO be changed. Prayer teaches me to be humble before the Lord, and to be more ready and able to hear and then respond to God's will for me. And, yes, teaches me to be grateful for all that I receive (whether it seems like a gift or not) -- not that I'm completely there yet! But I'm working on it :-)!

  2. Excellent homily, especially the last five sentences. It dovetails with the priest's direction in Confession this morning.

    1. I'm happy to hear that your confessor agrees with me. Smart man. ;-)