Sunday, February 08, 2015

Why Pray?

Ecclesiastes 5:1-5
Romans 8:26-30
Matthew 6:5-15

“Prayer is an act of love; words are not [always] needed.  Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.”  St. Teresa of Avila

“The Lord’s Prayer is the disciple’s life.”

A few years ago I had the privilege of sharing the “Liturgy of the Hours” with the Benedictine monks in Subiaco AR.  The “Liturgy of the Hours” is an order of worship that focuses strictly on prayer for the worldwide Church.  The monks gather five times per day, so I was only able (or willing) to gather with them during evening prayers. 

Looking back, I wish I had made the time to gather with them each time – including their 5am gathering!  These were long periods of silence, singing the psalms, and Scripture readings – with a soft bell to mark the transition from one period to the next.  Watching (more than praying, I’m afraid) these monks’ faces in their intensity, struggle, and utter peace, a thought crossed my mind that has stuck with me since.  

A little background first.

After Peter had proclaimed Jesus as Messiah (Matthew 16:15-18 NKJV), Jesus responded: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”

The emphasis – and promise – of Jesus’ proclamation is centered on His assurance that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail”, but the awkward passage of how Jesus uses Peter’s name (which, in Greek, is translated “rock”) has led to a lot of speculation about exactly what Jesus meant by building His Church upon this “rock”.   What exactly is the “rock”?

Some have speculated Jesus was literally referring to a specific spot He was standing on near the entrance to a cave traditionally believed to have been the entrance to the underworld.  Others believe the “rock” is the foundation of Peter’s faith-filled proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah upon which the Church would be established.  While there is that, of course, there still is something else the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther observed: “Prayer is a strong wall and fortress of the Church.”

It is that “fortress” of prayer I observed and felt with the monks and their wholehearted devotion to the task at hand – not the petitions but the prayer.  While many of the monks are teachers at the private school in Subiaco, they are all called first to a life of contemplation and prayer.  That’s what they do.  They are the “prayer warriors” for the entire Church universal! 

They are not all ordained as priests, and they do not move from location to location.  When they join a particular order at a particular monastery, that place is where they will stay to live, work, pray, eat, sleep, and die.  And part of the work they do – actually, THE work – is to pray.  That “fortress” I witnessed with the monks was, in that moment at least, the “rock” against which the “gates of Hades will not prevail.” 

The experience left me with the deep impression - especially in light of Jesus’ statement to Peter - that the “gates of hell” are constantly pushing against that “rock”, always struggling to get past, looking for the weak spots, perhaps waiting for a time when we may drop our guard.  That “fortress of prayer” vigilantly maintained by the monks – with others around the world – may be the only thing standing in this world between us and the sheer power and terror of hell itself.

Still, we look ahead into The Revelation (sometimes dangerously so, I might add) to see that this cosmic battle between Heaven and hell must take place.  It is going to happen.  That concept, then, seems to suggest that no matter how diligent we are in our prayers, “the gates of hell” will one day coming bursting through; and it will not be prayer that restores the Kingdom of Heaven but The Eternal and Almighty God Himself. 

His will be done.

So why do we pray?  Why must we pray?  Prayer is important enough that Jesus prescribed a prayer which we now know as The Lord’s Prayer.  It seems, however, the biggest mistake the Church has made over time with this remarkable Gift is that we have devoted ourselves to memorizing the Prayer – but perhaps we have not done enough to internalize the Prayer.  We can recite it (in Elizabethan English) in our heads and with our mouths, but I wonder if we can recite it from within our hearts; that is, to embrace the Prayer as our own, not simply as a commandment of Jesus.  A prayer that expresses our own deep longing, our own desire that The Lord’s “will be done on earth as The Lord’s will is done in Heaven” itself?

In the Prayer itself are the essential components of prayer we are to observe – if for no other reason than that Jesus said to “pray in this manner” (NKJV), “pray this way” (NRSV).  At no point does Jesus recommend that we memorize the Prayer itself, though I suppose it could be implied – and there is nothing wrong with memorizing the Holy Scriptures, of course … until we miss the point and power of what we have memorized. 

There is much more to this Prayer than meets the eye, much more than the words themselves; and considering the challenges the Church faces in the world today, it is long past time we take our collective prayer life as The Church - as the “rock” against which the gates of Hades shall not prevail – much more seriously; as if “the gates of hell” are pushing directly against us … because I believe they are.  Looking around, it would appear more than a few of hell’s demons have already gotten past us because we’ve gotten careless, complacent, and have dropped the ball in our task as “the rock”, maybe choosing instead to be a bunch of individual pebbles.

Yet we must not overlook Jesus’ assurance that the Holy Father “already knows” of our needs, so we cannot say we are telling The Lord something He does not already know.  So we are still left with the burning question: “Why pray?”  If The Lord’s will is The Lord’s demand and things happen only because The Lord ordained them to happen, how can what we say somehow change this?  Surely if The Lord already knows of our needs, then it can be said The Lord knows more than we will ever know – or need to know!  Yet Jesus calls us to this collective prayer because it is not strictly about “personal” needs or “personal” desires.

The answer to “why” we must pray “this way” individually AND as the collective Body of Christ is, I suspect, contained in the components of the Prayer and the Prayer itself.  This we will explore over the course of the next few weeks.  It is enough, for now, that we recognize Jesus’ exceptional Gift to The Church, to learn this Prayer, to embrace this Prayer as our own, and to profess this Prayer in our daily living.  For we The Church are the “rock” … and “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against [the Rock]”!  But it can drive over a bunch of gravel.

All Glory and Honor to the Father, to the Son, to the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forevermore.  Let the Church say, “Amen”.

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