Reflecting on today’s readings, a word came to mind that may change much about my prayer life. It’s a word that I haven’t really thought of in relation to prayer before, but it seems like it could be incredibly powerful, for myself and for (hopefully) doing God’s will.
In the Gospel selection from Luke, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, a prayer that we recognize immediately as the basis for the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a glorious and famous prayer, and it’s one that should come readily to the lips of any believer.
However, what caught my eye was a line of the Gospel before Jesus teaches this prayer. One of the disciples says, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.”
In other words, His disciples were asking Jesus how to pray.
“How.” How common is that word in your prayer life? I know it’s been pretty darn rare in mine up until now. Sure, I pray for those in need, I pray to be a better father and husband, I pray my gratitude about the blessings in my life. But there isn’t a lot of “how” there.
Consider the difference between:
“Help me, Lord, to be a better husband and father.”
“Open my heart and mind, Lord, so that I might know how to be a better husband and father.”
To my ears, that “how” is much more active. It’s not just leaning back and waiting for God to drop a sack of enlightenment on my skull. It’s inviting my participation.
Similarly, “Please, God, help the poor” might become: “Please, God, make me aware of how you want me to help the poor.”
“Lord Jesus, give me the strength to endure this trouble” may be restated as “Lord Jesus, help me understand how you want me to endure this trouble.”
As a final example, compare “God, thank you for the blessings I’ve received” with “God, teach me how to best show my appreciation and gratitude for the blessings I’ve received.”
Today’s first reading is the ending of the Book of Jonah. In it, Jonah is resentful that God shows mercy on the people of Nineveh after they turn back from their evil ways. He sulks, even as God offers some comfort and wisdom. The story ends before we hear of the resolution, and — for me — it’s one of the great reflective “What happens next?” moments of Sacred Scripture.
However, thinking about this tale in relation to my reflective mind today, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Jonah had said, “God, I still feel all this rage at the people of Nineveh, and I have such anger that you didn’t carry out your punishment upon them. Please, Lord, show me how to channel my feelings to do Your will, or how to ease my heart so I can return to being your cheerful servant.”
Of course, part of the problem with asking “how” is that it might be a question you feel dumb asking, because you already know the answer. “Tell me, God, how I might help this widow struggling to feed her children” feels silly if you have surplus money or food. You already know how to help them; give them food or money!
In that case, I’d argue the foolishness you might feel is the Spirit trying to reveal to you a truth you already know. “Please, God, help this widow and her orphans” lets you off the hook: “I sent my thoughts and prayers to those in need; job done!” But interjecting that “how” puts you on the hot seat; many times we know what needs to be done to do God’s will, and it’s a matter of finding the fortitude to actually to do it. That’s where the “how” might prove invaluable.
In some cases, there may not be any additional action outside of further prayer or contemplation. That’s still concrete action! But we should be careful not to close our minds and hearts off to other spiritual insight. After all, the disciples asked Christ how they should pray!
In other cases, that “how” can open our mind to the possibilities of the Sacraments. How do I be a better father? Well, the Sacrament of Holy Communion can bring me closer to God, reflecting on the Sacrament of Marriage can bring me strength and understanding to the Christ-forged aspect of my relationship that brought my child into the world, and the Sacrament of Confession is a great way to get right with God if I’ve messed up along the way.
Not every prayer can be rephrased to include a “how,” and there are many problems in our lives that can’t be acted on with more corporeal directness. But I suspect there may be many more opportunities in our lives to invite the Spirit to act by showing our willingness to act.
“How.” It’s a simple word — only three letters — but it may well change my entire outlook on prayer. If it’s not already a part of your reflective life, consider making it so. Like Jesus’ revelation of the Lord’s Prayer, that simple idea may be the first step to a whole new realm of having your prayers answered.