In a conversation I was having during a retreat some years ago, I was asked, “What is the value of prayer, if I can't pray?” The person asking this question told me that they were unable to pray and that they believed that since they were “cut off” from God in prayer, prayer had no value. Perhaps many of us can relate to that feeling of spiritual disconnect or "wilderness' that so many faithful before us have encountered -- and that praying to God just seems like a fruitless conversation with yourself. This conversation quickly led us to the more general question, “To pray or not to pray?", especially in times of God's perceived silence.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God.” Philippians 4:6-7
The issue of prayer is one of the most addressed topics of the church. Throughout to Bible, and especially in the New Testament, prayer is not only directed and assumed as the standard of faith but extolled as a means of grace and blessing. In the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and in the eleventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus, ‘How do we pray?’ Jesus' response is the foundation of what we recite as the “Lord’s Prayer.” More than the prayer, though, is the witness that prayer was on the minds and in the hearts of the disciples. Prayer was an established practice—its value was not questioned; moreover, how to pray was an expected component of what they would learn from their Master.
Jesus teaches throughout the gospels on the regular and necessary practice of prayer:
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Matthew 11:24
Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. Matthew 18:19-20
It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers. Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46
Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. Matthew 21:21-22
Matthew 24:20, Mark 13:18, Mark 11:23-26, Mark 12:38-40, Luke 20:45–47, Mark 13:33, Luke 6:46, Luke 10:2, Matthew 9:38, Luke 11:1–13 are only some of the passages in which teaches about prayer.
As the church grew in the first three centuries, the Fathers of the Church wrote and taught extensively about prayer. They recognized that prayer, for the Christian, is as water to the fish or air to the bird. It is what we live by, move through, depend on, and it is what we absolutely need in order to “become.”
Saint John Chrysostom wrote, “Prayer transforms hearts of flesh into spiritual hearts; tepid hearts into zealous hearts; human hearts into Divine hearts, with what reverence, then, should we converse with God!”
“Prayer is the light of the spirit, true knowledge of God, mediating between God and man. The spirit, raised up to heaven by prayer, clings to God with the utmost tenderness; like a child crying tearfully for its mother, it craves the milk that God provides. It seeks the satisfaction of its own desires, and receives gifts outweighing the whole world of nature.” "Prayer is the light of the spirit." excerpt from a homily by the saint. (Supp. Hom. 6 De precatione: PG 64, 462-466).
Saint Augustine asked, “Is there anything more excellent than prayer? Is there anything more beneficial in our life? Anything sweeter to the heart, or anything more sublime in our holy religion? Prayer is the groundwork of all virtues, the ladder by which we mount to God. It is related to the angels, it is the foundation of faith.” Letter 130
Saint Gregory wrote, “Of all things that we esteem and treasure in this life, there is nothing more precious than prayer.” Sermons, 92
And Saint Ephrem exclaims, “Oh, the magnificent and sublimity of prayer! Happy he who prays zealously. Satan cannot approach him, provided he is free from all deceit. Oh, the sublimity of prayer!”
So many more of our great spiritual and theological fathers and mothers through the ages have affirmed that which we all intrinsically know: prayer is everything.
Perhaps what we can learn from such a great cloud of witnesses is what we concluded in my retreat conversation: that even when we “cannot” pray, pray we must! Prayer is the ‘great conversation!’ It is the channel, the pipeline, the connection with God that God will travel through to us—despite our resistance or our perceived distance. Prayer is the healing avenue we must walk to be healed of the inability to walk, and through God’s grace, in the healing, we will run!
Prayerfully in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†