This gospel reading gives us an account of the beginning of the great prayer of Jesus for his followers. A prayer which is full of love and thanksgiving, a prayer from the heart of Jesus to the heart of his Father, and one which, if we’re honest, leaves us feeling that our own prayers are pretty poor efforts.
Now, perhaps for much of the time you’ll find prayer hard work. You’ll be tempted to give up, or to say what you feel you should, as quickly as you can, without letting on to all of your more holy friends that you have difficulties which you can’t imagine they would ever share!
Some of them will tell you it’s childish to ask God for things because God knows what we need, and will always do the best for us. Proper grown up prayer, they will say, should be confined to thanksgiving and praise.
And this, I think, is one of those beliefs which can make honest prayer so very difficult.
We must never forget that the prayer which Jesus gave us is full of requests to God. Requests for food, for forgiveness and for protection .And what’s more, he told us to pester God, just like we might pester a neighbour for something we badly need, even when the neighbour’s gone to bed.
So, uncomplicated prayer is good for us, not because our prayer somehow changes God’s mind but because through it, God helps us to understand that we’re his children and he’s our loving Father.
Of course, we have to pray for the right things, but those people who tell you the right things are all those spiritual ones like becoming more generous and high minded, aren’t necessarily correct. If we’re going to be honest with God we should pray for what we want and not just for what we think we ought to want.
So, when you pray, think about what you need or want, and then ask for that. It doesn’t matter very much if you just want help to pay the gas bill, or need a new car. Pray for that. You could let world peace rest for a bit, because you may not be ready just yet, to want that passionately.
When we pray, we need to come before God as honestly as we can, because pretending to him is just wasting our time.
God accepts us as we are, and when we come to him honestly he’s delighted to listen to us.
In true prayer God meets us where we are, and will gently move us on. If we acknowledge our most childish desires to God in prayer, then God will help us to grow up a bit by very patiently showing us that in fact we have deeper and more mature desires. And it’s only by taking the risk in prayer that this can be revealed to us.
It’s pointless in pretending that we have deep spiritual desires when we don’t. We need to grow up into those. After all, if a child is treated like an adult, he or she will never grow up. Prayer is the way in which our Father in heaven leads us, each one by a different path, to be with him.
All prayer is answered if it’s real and not just make-believe. Either God gives us exactly what we ask for, and this is very common, or else God will know that we’re now ready to receive more than we asked for. It’s quite likely that we won’t recognise this at the time of asking, and it may well be that it’s only as we look back that we realise just how God was getting us to understand that our deeper desire was for more than we asked.
The way to grow is to recognise that we haven’t grown, and God doesn’t mind that at all. Because like everything else, prayer starts from God and not from us. It’s God who decides that we shall pray, and it’s God who answers our prayers. God is within us, keeping us in being and making us ourselves. Everything we have is God’s free gift to us, and because we so often forget this, from time to time he reminds us . He wants us to see his gifts for what they are, and so he gives them to us in answer to our prayers. Answers, and miracles then, aren’t just special acts of God’s love, they’re tokens of his permanent love made particularly visible to us.
It’s when we lay our true desires before God that we can begin to see them more clearly. Quite often we may find that they aren’t the things which we really want after all, and as we pray, God leads us to realise that what we really want is God himself. But that’s the end, I think, not the beginning,
For Jesus, the cross was his prayer to bring about that which he’d failed to do. To bring it about through his loving acceptance of failure. And the Father’s answer to that prayer was the resurrection. Christ’s resurrection and ours.
And so it doesn’t matter whether or not we can produce fine words for God. It doesn’t matter that we fail. What matters most is that we’re honest. All our prayers, our simple requests; our struggles to find words for feelings which we fear to bring to God, are joined to this great prayer of Jesus, and so really become a sharing in the prayer of the cross.
And that’s why the Eucharist is the greatest of our prayers, because it’s the sign, the sacrament of the cross. The way by which we’re joined to the prayer and the sacrifice of Jesus, and through it taken right into the loving heart of God.