In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
This morning, I want to return to this list of quotations on prayer, which I referred to at the beginning of this month.
We could begin with a quote from this morning’s Gospel, “Ask and it shall be given unto you. Knock and it shall be opened unto you.”
Asking and seeking are very fundamental human activities. We are creatures who seek and long for something. Of course, God knows already what we desire, what we are truly seeking for, but He sifts our hearts through our longing, our desiring, our seeking. The issue is, when we stop wanting and expecting something from God, we must always be wanting something more.
Our problem is, our limitation in our expectations from Him. He takes us on a journey of desires and what may seem so important to us, so vital for our completion, we seem sometimes to be denied.
St Augustine talks about the enlargement of our desires. We expand and grow through what we truly want. If we stop wanting, stop desiring, then we stop growing. That’s why it’s important, says Jesus, to “seek and to ask”.
St Augustine writes “Lord, do not abandon your unfinished work. Bring to perfection all that is wanting in me.” These are marvellous words by Augustine. He trusts in a God who is not going to give up on him. Who is not going to abandon him. Augustine is deeply aware that he is still unfinished, there are unresolved needs, unresolved tensions, areas in his life that seem to contradict whom he is called to be. A great deal more work needs to be done with him.
Bring to perfection, he cries out. Bring to perfection all that is wanting in me. Augustine was a man of great passion, deep feelings. It was a philosopher, Wittgenstein, who called Augustine’s confessions “the most serious book ever written”. Here we see the saint undergoing a journey of inner transformation through conversation with God. There is an immense intelligence linked to a deeply feeling heart, wrestling with all the problems of belief and hope. And Augustine’s central theme in the end is the grace of God, God’s free and unmerited work within us, His transformative presence renewing us.
“Lord, do not abandon your unfinished work. Bring to perfection all that is wanting in me.” That would be a really good prayer to pray once in a while, but it must be prayed in the depths of who we are.
It fits in very neatly with another quote from this sheet by Kierkegaard. “Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.”
This morning we hear Jesus giving His prayer to His disciples and it begins with that simple word: “Our”. “Our Father”. Just to dwell on these two words as you’re riding on a bus, or in a train or underground, or just in a crowd of people, to remind us that God is Father of all. He’s Our Father, not mine, but everyone’s. And if we repeat this reality, this truth to ourselves, we begin to see people around us differently. “Prayer changes the one who prays.”
I like the quote by George Herbert: “ Hurry is the death of prayer “. In “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis, one devil is writing to a trainee devil on how to make sure the people don’t draw close to God, and he simply says “Fill their lives with noise, as much noise as possible, then they won’t hear anything of any value. They will lose the ability to discern what is true and good because it will be lost in the noise.” He could equally have said “Harass them. Fill them with a sense of hurry, speed, pressure. That will kill off prayer”, and how true we know that to be!
What is important in our lives isn’t necessarily what is most worthwhile and the most worthwhile things get pushed out. Being with God, the source of all worth, and so He alone is worthy or worship, is also central to the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” The first thing Jesus calls us to do is to hallow the name of God, to worship. Without worship we shrink to the size of the latest idol we have acquired for ourselves. It is only adoration of God that enlarges the human spirit and frees her from lesser realities that can soon imprison us. However good those realities at the time may seem.
Ignatius of Loyola “Everything that turns a person in the direction of God is prayer”. We have to pause for a moment to think about this. God can so often be hidden, His presence ambiguous, or no sense of presence at all. So sometimes we are not too sure if we are being drawn to God, or what?
I believe that all poets, in one way or another, are people of prayer. Through exploring a moment in time and using their imagination to probe and understand, allowing the words to spontaneously take them on a journey of appreciation, wonder, sadness. They are trying to get to the heart of the truth of something. And anyone who is trying to find the truth of a situation is at prayer.
I like to think that a doctor listening carefully to a patient as they describe their symptoms, showing a respectful attentiveness, is at prayer. A mother, listening to her child as he tries to find the right words to explain an exciting or sad experience, without interrupting and trying to hurry the process along, is at prayer. Because they will all be drawn into something new and surprising. They are open to being surprised and not trying to limit the experience through their own past categories of thought.
Respectful attention to others is prayer because we have to set aside our own ego, our own needs, and we can’t do this if we are in a hurry!
Karl Barth has something interesting to say about prayer: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of the uprising against the disorders of the world.” This is a reminder that prayer can be a subversive activity. If there is a situation which we believe to be disordered in any way, we must ask ourselves have we prayed into that place, into that disorder? There are more forces at work in our world than perhaps we are aware of, and prayer with the right intention can only strengthen what is good and what is true, releasing others and ourselves from the disorders that they are caught in.
The Church primarily is a community at prayer, a community that asks and seeks, and through our asking and seeking we are taken on a journey. But what enlivens this journey, Jesus says, is the gift of the Holy Spirit. And ultimately, it is this gift we are called to ask for.
The Holy Spirit is God, active within us, bringing us to birth, making us more than who we truly are, strengthening all that is good and true and beautiful about us. Not just us as individuals, but us together as a community of prayer.
But this gift isn’t for ourselves alone. Those who have this gift step out of themselves with an openness and a generosity towards others. They’re enlivened, enkindled, with the flame of God’s love and by its very nature, become a life for others. Their focus is no longer themselves.
It is this gift of the Holy Spirit that has been given to the Church, that was given to each one of us at our baptism, which we are responsible, now and always, to fan into reality. We need to give oxygen to the flame of the Holy Spirit so that it enlivens who we are and all our activity. This is what Jesus longs for us to ask for and to seek, and He promises that He will give it to us.
When I asked someone the question what do you think the Holy Spirit is? the person replied “I think it’s the right attitude, a clarity, about where you are truly coming from, that guidance for right thinking and right action”. This was an interesting reply because it spoke first of all of the clarity of where you’re coming from, the right attitude.
The Holy Spirit is a two-edged sword, it reveals the truth of ourselves to ourselves, those uncomfortable parts that need changing. But also at the same time in such a loving and restorative way. The Holy Spirit does not give up on us, in whatever situation we find ourselves, He is always there, reordering the disordered.
The wonderful thing about our lives in Christ is that we are not alone. We have resources beyond ourselves which we can call upon to help us through difficult moments and difficult times. But we are always called to ask and seek, and this must be a daily activity. How we start our day can affect the whole day. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, begins as soon as he steps out of bed, by breathing in Compassion, and breathing out Compassion, facing the North, then the South, then the East, then the West. He says it takes just about 3 minutes, but that is always his first activity as soon as he wakes up. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we had a similar discipline, to begin our first moments, our first breaths, by simply saying perhaps the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, Who are in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our Daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into to temptation, but deliver us from evil.
There is no greater privilege in our lives than to start the day with the very words that Jesus Himself gave us.