A boy wanting to clean up a vacant lot and turn it into a ball-field was trying to move a large stone out of the way, but no matter how he tried, he couldn’t budge it. His father was watching him, and asked, “Are you sure you are using all your strength?” “Yes, I am,” the boy insisted, but the father corrected him, saying, “No, you are not—you haven’t asked me.” Too many people try to remove or overcome life’s obstacles without relying on the greatest resource available to them: the assistance of their Heavenly Father. Prayer is the means by which we ask for God’s help; prayer also allows us to come closer to Him by thanking Him for His blessings, asking forgiveness for our sins, interceding on behalf of others, and adoring Him and praising Him for His goodness.
Many times, however, the idea of prayer intimidates us; we make it harder than it has to be. A well-educated, self-important pastor always tried to impress his congregation by praying in lofty, abstract language that no one could understand. Finally an exasperated older woman interrupted him by tugging on his sleeve and saying, “Oh, for Pete’s sake—just call God ‘Father’ and ask Him for something!” That’s very good advice, for in giving His disciples the Our Father, Jesus instructed them not to multiply empty words, but to pray simply and from the heart (Mt. 6:7-8). In the words of a Jesuit priest (Fr. Willie Doyle), “Make your prayer simple, as simple as you can. Reason little, love much, and you will pray well.” An important historical example demonstrating this truth is seen in the dedication of the national cemetery at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The famous and highly-esteemed orator Edward Everett spoke for two hours that November day—but today no one remembers his eloquent speech. However, all Americans have heard of—and many of us can recite at least part from memory—the short, 87 word speech which followed: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
In the words of the famous 17th century Christian author John Bunyan, “In prayer, it is better to have a heart without words than words without heart.” Prayer is nothing without the personal presence of the one praying. A little boy had been begging favors of his father all day long, and once more came into his dad’s office. “What do you want this time?” asked the weary parent, but to the father’s surprise and delight, the child simply said, “Daddy, I don’t want anything—I just want to be with you.” This is the nature of prayer: seeking to be with God—and if, while in His presence, we have something to talk about, our words should be as simple as possible. St. Jane Frances de Chantal tells us, “Follow your own way of speaking to Our Lord sincerely, lovingly, confidently, and simply, as your heart dictates.” This was the method of St. Thèrése of Lisieux, who said, “I tell God what I want quite simply, without any splendid turn of phrase, and somehow He always manages to understand me.” Echoing this approach, Pope John XXIII (who will be officially canonized next month on April 27) said, “Praying is the rising of the mind to God. We must always remember this. The actual words matter less.”
If, like me, you’re older than 55, you may very well remember watching on TV the lunar landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969—the first time a man set foot on the moon. What you probably didn’t know is that during this and the other Apollo missions to the moon, the spaceships were off course more than 90% of the time—but through constant communication with Mission Control in Houston, they were able to make the necessary course corrections. In the same way, we are off course much of the time during our journey through life—but through constant communication with God, we can make the frequent adjustments needed to stay on the proper path. Prayer allows us to do this.
A short anonymous quote says, “Prayer is the key to the morning and the bolt of the evening”; another anonymous quote assures us that “A day hemmed in prayer is less likely to become unraveled.” I especially like another quote—a longer one by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says, “Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the innermost self. All things have a home; the bird has a nest, the fox has a hole, the bee has a hive. A soul without prayer is a soul without a home. . . . To pray is to open a door where both God and the soul may enter.”
Prayer is important for each of us, for St. Cyprian, in referring to Jesus, said, “If He Who was without sin prayed, how much more ought sinners to pray!” St. John Vianney made this same point by using imagery familiar to his parishioners, most of whom were farmers. The Cure d’ Ars said, “The man who doesn’t pray is like a chicken or turkey, which can’t rise into the air. They may fly a little, but they soon have to come down, they scratch the earth and get deeper and deeper into it, they cover their heads with it and they don’t seem to take pleasure in anything else. The man who prays, on the other hand, is like a fearless eagle, and seems always to want to get closer to the sun.” A more contemporary author, the Benedictine Hubert Van Zeller, tells us, “If you do not pray, everything can disappoint you by going wrong. If you do pray, everything can still go wrong, but not in a way that will disappoint you.” In other words, prayer gives us the strength and perspective to cope with life’s difficulties and setbacks. As St. Frances Xavier Cabrini noted, “We must pray without tiring, for the salvation of mankind does not depend on material success; nor on sciences that cloud the intellect. Neither does it depend on arms and human industries, but on Jesus alone.” Our prayers—or the lack of them—truly make a difference in the world; they also determine the course of our own lives. According to the saintly French mathematician Blaise Pascal, “All the troubles of life come upon us because we refuse to sit quietly for a while each day in our rooms.”
We need to pray—but it has to be done in a humble and trusting spirit, not a demanding one. According to an author named Kenneth Wilson, “We have created God in the image of a divine bellhop. Prayer, for us, is the ultimate in room service, wrought by direct dialing. Furthermore, no tipping, and everything is charged to that great credit card in the sky. Now prayer is many things, but I’m pretty sure this is not one of the things it is.” Mr. Wilson is quite right; prayer isn’t about our will, but God’s will—and we must learn to conform ourselves to it. Another author uses the analogy of children learning to color; at first they don’t always choose appropriate colors, and they have difficulty staying within the lines. As they get better at coloring, however, they become capable of producing some very beautiful and satisfying pictures. This author, Michael Green, continues, “As children of our Heavenly Father, our prayer life often resembles a child’s coloring. At first, we don’t know what to pray for nor do our prayers stay within the guidelines of His will. As we mature and continue praying, though, we pray for the right things and stay within His will, resulting in a satisfying prayer life.” According to St. Teresa of Avila, “All that should be sought for in the exercise of prayer is conformity of our will and the Divine Will, in which consists the highest perfection.” God has arranged it so that the more we pray, the easier it becomes to understand and accept His plan for our lives—and in terms of seeing the “big picture,” St. Augustine reminds us that “even though God doesn’t always give us what we want, He gives us what we need for our salvation.” We can always trust God to give us what is truly best for us, and so we can pray with confidence—for as someone (Richard C. Trench) noted, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance but cooperating with His willingness.”