PRAY DAILY. I had only been in town a couple of days when I started noticing these bumper stickers. I saw them on cars, trucks, and vans around the city, and many of the same cars bore another sticker that read, TRUST JESUS. I thought, “Could there be a correlation?”
Pray daily. Trust Jesus. If only it were that simple. Prayer is something we can and should do daily, a regular and urgent part of our lives as Christians. And trust is possible to whoever prays to the Spirit of God that his will be done and that we receive the power of God. Easier said than done.
However, we don’t have to go it alone: prayer is one of our most common experiences, is what it means to be Catholic — universal. We pray because we are Catholic; we are Catholic because we pray. If prayer is talking to God from the heart and meditating is listening to him then to pray and meditate clearly and honestly is to accept God’s will no matter how challenging. Lex orandi lex credendi: that’s the law of prayer: We pray what we believe.
Simple, but not easy. By ourselves, we don’t always know how to pray correctly, how to reach a God so mysterious and beyond our comprehension. Who among us can comprehend the majesty of God? We can’t, because we’re not him, but we are his creation and he wants us to feel close to him and to trust in his will. So he gives us the Spirit and so he shares his power.
According to Saint Paul, God’s own Spirit prays for us because we in our humanity are incapable of praying divinely that God’s will be done. Our humanity prevents this from happening. Whether we pray in communion or in private, our prayer will be effective only when it is directed by the Spirit of God who alone knows the will of God. Praying daily in trust to Jesus will help us to accept and to live in reality. That’s the mystery of the Holy Trinity from which we are not excluded. Humility comes in recognizing that we need God’s help to understand the meaning of his love in our lives. Daily prayer to the Spirit and humble trust in Jesus is necessary to gain that understanding.
Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans:
The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings which cannot be expressed in speech (8:26-27).
Of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, Romans is considered to be most important. In addition to being the longest of Paul’s letters, Romans is also the apostle’s most developed statement on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Apart from the Gospels, Romans has had a greater influence on the Church than any other New Testament writing. As such, the Church reads from Romans for a period of sixteen weeks during Year A in the lectionary. Paul’s message: humanity is lost without the Gospel and salvation is possible only through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Faith is necessary for justification (salvation) but it requires an interior conversion in order to make exterior aspects of our lives meaningful.
We can’t think our way into right action, nor can we act our way into right thinking. The grace to experience true conversion of heart—redemption—comes exclusively from the Holy Spirit to whom we pray to know and to accept God’s will.
Reminding the Romans (and us) that they (and we) live in the realm of the Spirit, Paul calls on them (and us too) to live according to the Spirit, which is the fulfillment of God’s law. It is necessary, therefore, to conform our lives to the reality of God and to use the power he gives us to carry out that plan. A life of prayer in the Spirit makes that possible even in the most difficult moments of our lives. Try it and you’ll see. Pray daily, trust Jesus, and life will change. Pain in life is inevitable, meaningless interior suffering is optional, and when it becomes more difficult to suffer than to change, change will occur. All creation changes over time but God doesn’t change. He is the first, the last, and the always, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is to come. He is Truth with a capital “T”.
Paul believed this wholeheartedly and entirely. He lived this Truth and he saw it in the lives of the men and women to whom he ministered. In Romans, he makes the assumption that his audience, early Christians in ancient Rome, already are praying but he knows they are encountering difficulties, challenges to which he himself was not immune. That’s what made Paul so effective as a minister: he identified with other Christians because he was one of them. He writes to the Romans in response to their concerns because they are uncertain about how to pray, and what to pray for. They asked Paul the same questions he asked himself, the same questions we ask today. Why doesn’t God answer? Is my prayer in vain? I wonder whether God is listening of whether he even cares. Those very questions are the reasons why we must continue to pray. There are other ways to live but in reality there is only The Way.
Paul’s teachings on prayer are harder to accept than they are to understand. And questions arising in our hearts are common, valid questions that only God can answer. But God is not a genie in a bottle there to grant us our commands. By praying for what we want all the time, we become enslaved to those very objects and desires from which we want to be freed. For example, if we pray for more money we might find ourselves working overtime to support our lifestyle and discover we have less time to spend with family and friends. As Paul sees it, we are to pray only for the knowledge of God’s will for us and the power of to carry it out. Otherwise, by refusing to put God first, we deprive ourselves of his help; we are telling him what to do—a violation of the First Commandment. If we are to pray for trust and detachment there can be no reservations about the results, come what may, because prayer helps us to trust God. It works if we work it, if we take action. Faith without works is dead” (see James 5:17).
Prayer is what Christians must do daily, to speak to God every day, all day. Paul notes that our human limitations prevent us from praying rightfully but the Spirit of God helps because he knows our weaknesses. The kind of prayer that Paul speaks of here, however, goes further; in fact, not only does the Spirit teach us to pray but the Spirit also prays for us! And whether such prayer is personal or communal, it is always effective since it is guided by God’s Spirit, who knows God’s will. Who could know him better than he knows himself?
Seven years ago I made the commitment to pray daily. Every morning I spent an hour in personal prayer and meditative reading. Soon I found that my day wasn’t right without my hora prima devoted to communicating open-heartedly with God. The more I prayed, the better I felt, and soon praying was not optional, but was something I needed to do, the way we need food, water, air, and sunshine. It became sustenance. Prayer is something that we cannot live without, should not want to live without. Paul also says: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) and he means it. Every word he wrote in his letters he wrote with absolute conviction.
Once I was stuck in my routine so I visited my spiritual director and told him I did not know what to pray for anymore. He said, “Then simply pray for its own sake.” What’s wrong with that? If God is a loving parent or a friend, why wouldn’t we want to spend time talking with him simply for its own sake? He talks to us all the time but I wonder how well we listen. The Spirit does the talking for us, even while we are asleep.
Because I am a priest, parishioners often tell me, “Father, please pray for me.” That’s what a priest does: he prays for the people. The Church is a school of prayer, Paul is a distinguished professor, but Jesus is the Master who teaches us how to pray. He gives us the perfect combination of thanksgiving and petition in the “Our Father”. He tells us plainly, “This is how you are to pray”: ‘Thy will be done not mine.’ So easy, you could put it on a bumper sticker.
Pray daily. Trust Jesus. May we pray to the Spirit and ask for help to overcome distractions when we pray. Ask for what God himself — the expert on prayer — tells us to ask for: the Holy Spirit. If we were to spend every waking moment of our lives at prayer — millions of people on earth are doing this right now — we would never exhaust the source. There is more grace than oxygen or outer space. “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). The Spirit is ours for the asking.