FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (B)
This is a habit one sees Jesus engage in over and over again throughout the gospels. He spends time in public, preaching, healing or performing other miracles and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. But then He always retreats to a quiet place to spend time with the Father in prayer. Personal prayer was an integral and necessary part of Jesus' ministry. To put it another way, even God Incarnate needed to spend time communing with God in heaven during His time on earth.
Why is prayer so important? If our idea of prayer is simply asking God for things, then we may wonder why Jesus (who was God) needed to pray at all. But prayer is much more than that. The Syrian monk St. John Damascene called prayer "the raising of one's mind and heart to God." More than merely asking God for things we want, as if He were a sort of celestial Santa Claus, prayer involves actively putting yourself into God's presence.
To get a sense of why this matters, imagine a young engaged couple who, after their wedding, each take their own cars back to their separate apartments. They don't move in together. They don't see each other during the day. They don't call or even text one another. But once a week, on Sunday morning, they get together for an hour after breakfast just to check in. The rest of the time they don't communicate at all. Would anyone call this a good marriage? Of course not.
If we wouldn't expect a husband and wife to have a relationship like that, why do we think it's sufficient for a relationship with God? I sometimes get students express frustration because they don't feel close to God. When I ask them how often they pray, the answer is usually "never" or "not often." With human friends and family members, relationships are fostered by spending time together. Prayer allows us to foster our relationship with God by spending quality time with Him. And that means more than just saying grace before meals or showing up for Mass (though those are good things to do).
St. Terese of Lisieux wrote in her dairy, "For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy." When the scriptures speak of prayer, sometimes it is said to come from the soul or the spirit, but most often -- more than a thousand times -- the scriptures say prayer comes from the heart. So when we pray, it must come from the heart. "The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully... it is the place of encounter... it is the place of covenant" (CCC 2563).
Lent is fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is Feb. 18), which is a time when the Church pays special attention to the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I will be giving more suggestions in the coming weeks on ways to pray. But the main thing is to simply start praying. Prayer does not require adopting the right posture or having the correct words to recite. Christian prayer is not about learning a special technique. The seventeenth century French monk, Brother Lawrence, said that there was no art or science needed to approach God, "but only a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him, or for His sake, and to love Him only."
When we pray with our heart, it is our whole self that prays. Turn your thoughts and your affections to God, and that is prayer. That is something each of us can do today, and something which each of us can stand to do more. With a heart directed to God, only then will the words of our prayer find meaning. With a heart directed to God in prayer, only then will we begin to truly know His presence and love.