"Lord, Teach us to pray." Did the disciple who made that request have any clue about the intimacy of asking someone how he prays? Our prayer exposes the heart of our relationship with God: who we think God is and how we stand in God's presence.
Listen to Joan of Arc who, when her interrogators demanded that she tell them how she prayed, said, "Most sweet God, in honor of your holy passion, I beg you, because you love me, to reveal to me how I must respond to these churchmen."
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That gave witness to her faith and hinted that she saw herself as obedient but was not so sure about the opposition.
Thomas Merton teaches us to approach God with humility and trust: "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. ... I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost ... I will not fear ... you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
We also have St. Ignatius' Suscipe: "Take, Lord, receive all my liberty ... Give me your love and your grace, that's enough for me." And that's a centuries-old version of Reinhold Niebuhr's "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
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Each of these prayers somehow echoes the Lord's Prayer.
Luke's version of Jesus' teaching about prayer is a series of short petitions that function as dialogue-openers to lead us into deeper relationship with God. Meditating on each phrase can lead us to understand how Jesus made those petitions a part of his life and how we might incorporate each into our own life.
When the unnamed disciple asked Jesus to teach them to pray, she (or he) recognized that praying is something we learn. Just as Jesus had to be taught to talk, so too his parents instructed him in the ways of prayer — from the prayers of Scripture to their own ways of relating with God.
The prayer he taught the disciples parallels almost every phrase of the song Luke quotes Mary as praying before Jesus was born. He said, "Father, hallowed be your name." She said, "My soul magnifies the Lord."
He said "your kingdom come," and she proclaimed that God had overthrown tyrants, dumbfounding the arrogant. Jesus prayed for bread and she rejoiced that God had filled the hungry with good things.
Jesus told his disciples to pray for forgiveness and she proclaimed that God's mercy reaches from age to age. Jesus taught them to pray, "Do not subject us to the test," and she sang, "God has helped Israel."
In essence, Mary's song rejoiced in the fulfillment of the petitions Jesus taught his followers. No wonder we call her the woman of faith!
After giving them the prayer starters, Jesus went on to teach the disciples with a couple of homey theological reflections. The story of the nighttime bread run reflects on the petitions for the coming of the kingdom and daily bread. We know well the story of the person who harassed a slumbering neighbor until he rolled out from under the covers, opened the door and handed over his leftovers.
Does this portray God as the divine napper? A more Gospel-based interpretation sees God or God's messenger in the role of the one who allowed a homeless and hungry person into the house in the middle of the night, even though there was no food to offer.
For this host, prayer for the hungry provided the motivation to stand in the middle and meddle until the hungry were fed and the well-off shared their excess. How else can God provide daily bread for the poor if not through such as these? Who will drag the wealthy into the kingdom of God except those who keep banging on their door?
Jesus' second example starts with blank-check promises: Ask and you will receive, seek and you shall find. He then invites parents to think like God. Would any of them sneak a snake into their son's lunchbox or scare their daughter with a scorpion? Jesus promises that we can ask God for absolutely anything.
But there's a caveat. God will listen, but there are no promises about our wish list. God doesn't dispense fame or prosperity, no matter how much we knock or say the magic formula prayers.
At the same time, asking for those things will station us at the door that opens on what we really need. God is waiting patiently to give us the Spirit -- no matter what we ask.
[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a historical theologian currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.]