"This is how you are to pray:" Matthew 6:9a
We are beginning the first full week of Lent. The Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-18) gave us three practices that will deepen our relationship with God: giving alms, praying and fasting.
Almsgiving is based upon the tradition of sharing your goods with the poor, found in different texts within the Old Testament. However, it was Jesus who insisted in making the giving of alms as one of the cornerstones of his Gospel.
Fasting also has a rich history in our Scriptures. Fasting prepares the person to receive God’s loving mercy. Fasting is a personal expression of contrition for infidelity to God’s Covenant.
Jesus adds prayer to this list of penitential practices. These Scripture readings for today’s Mass challenge us to ask the question: how do you pray?
Like so many of us, I learned to pray at my mother’s knees. We were a praying family. We always began our prayers by making the Sign of the Cross. We prayed when we got up in the morning, sometimes going to daily Mass; we prayed before and after meals; we prayed a family rosary and we prayed as a family at holy hour. More often than not, we prayed the Our Father and the Hail Mary the vast majority of the time. So, when I began reflecting on this passage as a seminarian and as a preacher, I was personally challenged by this Gospel. Much of my prayer was repetitious prayer. Much of my prayer was for some intention, for example, asking for healing, for helping someone who was in trouble and for a benefit for me or my family.
Then I began to reflect upon the "Our Father" as the model for all prayer. Jesus begins the Our Father with a stream of praise to God as Loving Father. Then we get to the heart of the prayer: "Thy will be done" on earth as it is in heaven! This prayer is all about God’s will and not my will. This is the prayer we find on Jesus’ lips the night before he died, pleading for his life before his Loving Father. Ultimately, his prayer was: "Not my will but Thine be done!"
The next phrase is a petition for daily bread. We ask for what will keep us alive day in and day out. That is the only petition that we find in this prayer. Then, we make a plea for the forgiveness of our sins but only on the condition that we forgive others. This is part of the prayer that is the most difficult to say with conviction and meaning. Yes, I want my sins forgiven. I am not so sure I am willing to forgive that other miserable scoundrel that hurt me and my family, that lied about me, that defrauded me, that laughed in my face when I was trying to be honest and sincere. Finally, we pray to keep us far from walking that path which leads us to sin and a destructive way of life. We need the grace to walk away from the near occasions of sin, the parties that lead to drunkenness and sexual misconduct, the companions that teach us how to lie and how to be dishonest, the websites which draw us into worlds of gambling and promiscuity.
So whether we pray the Our Father in silence or we pray it aloud, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we pray it with fervor and conviction of a follower of Christ. Every other way we pray it would be babble!
Fr. Clemente Barrón, C.P. is stationed in San Antonio, Texas.