Sunday, October 20, 2019

How to Pray Better

(Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 20, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 17:8-13; Psalm 121:1-8; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-ninth Sunday 2019]

The apostles said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  In response, he taught them the “Our Father.”

If we’re serious about our faith, we will often say something similar to Jesus.  We will say, “Lord, teach me to pray better; teach me to pray more effectively; teach me to pray as you want me to pray.”

And this is certainly something Jesus wants to do for us: he wants to help us pray better, since he knows how important and how powerful prayer is!  In today’s Gospel text St. Luke says this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.”  Obviously, Jesus knew his disciples would be tempted at times to get casual about their prayer or to neglect it entirely, and he wanted to motivate them to resist those temptations!  So he told them this parable about a poor widow seeking justice.  His message to them was, “Look, if this dishonest, despicable judge will honor the persistent requests of this widow, how much more will your loving, compassionate Father respond to the sincere and persistent prayers of his beloved children?  So pray—and pray with confidence and with perseverance; in good times and in bad; when you feel like it and even when you don’t feel like it.”

One footnote here: Notice that Jesus does not say or imply that God will always respond to our prayers in precisely the way we want him to; he merely assures us that God will respond—and ultimately that response will be according to his perfect and holy will.

Of course, God has many different ways of actually answering our prayers.  Sometimes he answers them through events; sometimes he answers them through other human beings.  Believe it or not—he can even answer prayers through me.  (I know that may seem astonishing to some people, but remember that for God all things are possible.)  So, if you’ve ever uttered that prayer I mentioned at the very beginning, “Lord teach me to pray better,” perhaps God will answer that request this morning through yours truly!

As I prepared for this homily, I asked the Lord to give me some insights on this very subject, and—as he always does—he answered my prayer.  So here are some simple, practical points on praying more effectively. 

To pray better:

1.   Praise and thank first; ask second.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of prayer as “the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.”  A good relationship does not begin with the words, “Give me . . . “.  Prayer that begins with petition is usually superficial prayer.  And here’s a corollary to this suggestion: When you do offer up your petitions and ask God for things, pray for others as well as for yourself.  We know that’s what God wants us to do because in the ‘Our Father’ (which is our model prayer) we never use the pronoun “I”; it’s always “us” and “our”.  
2.    To pray better, pray to a Person.  We don’t pray to a “force” or an impersonal power floating out there in the cosmos somewhere.  New Agers do that.  We pray to a personal God who loves us just as we are, but too much to let us stay that way (as Scott Hahn would put it).  In this regard, it may be helpful to imagine Jesus standing before you when you pray—especially when you do so in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  (Because when you pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus IS right there in front of you!)
3.    Here’s another suggestion: To pray better, focus on quality and not on quantity.  When I was growing up, I remember my pastor saying, “It’s better to say one ‘Our Father’ slowly and with real devotion, than to say a hundred at warp speed.  Quality is more important than quantity.”
4.    This follows from number 3: Think about what you’re saying!  Don’t pray like a parrot, pray like a prophet!  Parrots just say words without thinking; prophets reflect on what they’re saying.
5.    But don’t say too much!  To pray well, practice listening.  This, admittedly, is very difficult—but well worth the effort.  And here’s a great way to begin practicing: before Mass, slowly read over the Scripture passages for the day.  Look for a word or phrase that strikes you and touches your mind and heart.  Then spend some time pondering that word or phrase, and ask the Lord to help you to see how it applies to your life.  At times you’ll be surprised at how many ideas flood your mind.  That’s one way to practice “listening to God.” (Of course, to do this kind of practicing, you’ve obviously got to get here early!)
6.    This idea stands behind the suggestion to practice listening: If you want to pray better, always expect Someone to speak to you when you pray. (Someone there has a capital “S”.)  You can only listen to a message if someone says something you can hear!  Perhaps one reason why many of us find prayer boring is that we don’t really expect to “hear” the Lord speak to us in his Word or in our heart when we pray to him!  Consequently, we keep our “spiritual ears” closed!
7.    Another suggestion: Don’t judge the effectiveness of your prayer by how you feel.  Think about Moses in today’s first reading: he stood there for hours in prayer with his hands raised up in the air, while Joshua and the Israelites fought the Amalekites.  After a while, he definitely felt exhausted!  In fact, he was so tired that Aaron and Hur had to support his hands!  But his prayer was extremely effective, in spite of the fatigue he felt in his body.
8.    Here’s a crucial point about praying well: Never think that you can “change God” when you pray: that can’t possibly happen, so it will only make you frustrated!  Prayer doesn’t change God, but it will change us if we allow it to, opening us up to the many blessings the Lord already wants to give us.
9.    This one I’ve saved for now for obvious reasons (because it's so difficult!): To pray effectively, pray like Jesus (i.e., pray even for your enemies, and make every effort to forgive them!) Remember the prayer Jesus offered on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  1 Peter 3: 7 indicates that if we pray with love in our hearts, nothing will prevent our prayers from being answered.  But our love must be universal, because the love of Christ was universal. 
10. And finally, if you have trouble putting into practice any or all of the suggestions I just mentioned, don’t give up—EVER!  If it’s any consolation, I’ve had trouble with all of them at one time or another in my life, and quite frankly I still have difficulty with some of them!  But why would I want to give up?  The prize—even on this side of the grave—is well worth the price!  And so, as Monsignor Struck would put it: “Pray, pray, pray.”
And be sure to do it every day—without exception.