In Thursday’s mass reading from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, our Lord counseled His disciples how to pray. He admonished against devotion for show and the repetitive mouthing of sacred words without inner sanctity. And He taught the world the Our Father, encapsulating in less than a minute the essence of man’s proper relationship with God.
In his homily at the morning mass at Our Lady of Pentecost Parish in Loyola Heights, Fr. Bill Abbott, the Socius or chief assistant to the Jesuit Provincial, or head in the Philippines, offered a few simple but often forgotten thoughts on prayer.
Reflecting upon Jesus’ instruction to avoid empty rote and ritual, Fr. Bill recounted the tale of a farmer staying half an hour or so after every daily mass he attended. Intrigued by the man constantly yet silently sitting in church, a priest once inquired what sort of prayer or devotional acts the farmer made.
“I look at the Lord, and He looks down at me,” the old man explained.
That’s it. No words or gestures. Just being with God. Every morning after worshipping and listening to Him, and receiving His Body.
To be sure, there is much value in devotional and liturgical words and actions. But over and above what we say and do before God and in worship of Him, indeed, the very ground that gives meaning to our mouthed prayers and heartfelt gestures, is our desire to be with the God we love and lift our heart, mind and soul to Him.
Even if we say nothing. Or indeed, even when we fall asleep, as Pope Francis said he sometimes did at prayer.
So when we pray, let us heed our Lord and, first and foremost, be there with God, even before we say a word.
First of all, seek God
Fr. Bill highlighted another aspect of prayer: it is centered on God. You’d think that would have been obvious, yet not a few believers are more often focused on their own wishes and concerns, turning to the Lord only when they face problems or seek favors.
The Lord’s Prayer focuses on God right at the start, with the first half addressing the Father and extolling His heavenly home, His holy name, His kingdom, and His will.
So is God so obsessed with Himself that His Son’s prayer has to devote so many of its first words on Him? Certainly not, if one considers what prayer is for, in the first place.
It’s not to give God something He requires, for He has no need for anything to become perfect, infinite and absolute. Rather, prayer gives voice and form to humanity’s rightful regard for the divine. And to get things right from the start, a prayer must first acknowledge and express our worship for the Supreme Being in His various aspects.
Adoration of our Creator and desire for His goodness, kingdom and will to be established and fulfilled in our world — that is what every believer should manifest before anything else. Otherwise, we may be substituting ourselves or our idols for our Lord. Just imagine if the Our Father began with “Give us this day our daily bread.”
At the same time, even as Jesus teaches us to express how we value and seek God and His goodness above all, the Lord’s Prayer also declares in the first two words that He gave life and existence to us, and cares for us as a loving father, whom we can call “Abba” — or Ama, Dad, Itay, Papa, and other words of filial closeness and endearment.
The good news is, in acknowledging God as the Supreme Being and Good we adore and desire, we do ourselves the indispensable favor of pointing our entire being — heart, mind, soul and body — toward the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, for our greatest gain and welfare. Not to mention an all-loving, all-powerful Father.
Divine Mercy — the core of God
Reflecting on the second half of the Lord’s Prayer, Fr. Bill distilled what he called the essence of what it means to be Godly, to become like our Maker: forgiveness.
One cannot claim to be following God’s will and Christ’s footsteps, said the Jesuit priest, unless one forgives others, for Divine Mercy is the paramount attribute of God, Who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Jesus also admonishes that we must show mercy for us to also receive mercy for our sins. These days, however, sin isn’t a word that people care to use or even think about.
Modern ideas and culture have tended to downplay and diminish personal guilt, often attributing wrongful acts to psychological, social, economic and other factors seen as curtailing free will. Or worse: many acts are no longer seen as wrongful.
We will not save for another discussion the conflicting perspectives on morality and responsibility in our age. But whatever differences there may be in gauging right and wrong, sanctity and sin, most if not all sides can agree that there is much amiss in the world, from violence and injustice, to poverty, disease and environmental despoilation.
Nor can anyone claim he or she is unblemished and entirely innocent of any failings and acts that contribute to today’s ills. So modern or not, every soul cannot but acknowledge that we need some kind of forgiveness and filling in of our imperfections, certainly toward one another, and for believers, from the Divine.
Thankfully, our Father knows that His creatures, being distinct from the flawless Creator, cannot but have flaws. So His Love, after bringing us into earthly existence, seeks nothing else but to bring us to His heavenly perfection, wiping away our failings.
That is what being God is all about, and to be like Him, we must forgive others and ourselves, too, and join hands with our Creator to bring all of creation toward His wholeness. Amen.