Life & Soul

Word This Week

A detail from The Lord’s Prayer by French painter James Tissot (1836-1902)

Every real relationship must find expression as the one reaches out to the other. Prayer is the expression of our relationship with God, for it is in prayer that we reach out to God, allowing ourselves to be known by him. The way in which we pray leads us into the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.

The prayer of Abraham, preceding the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah, is instructive. Immediately before this prayer, Lot, Abraham’s kinsman, had set off to settle in the doomed cities. Fearing for their fate, Abraham pleaded with the Lord: “Are you really going to destroy the just man with the sinner. Will the judge of the whole earth not administer justice?”

Fear, and a concern for those we love, is frequently the starting point of our prayer. It is, however, only the starting point. We come before God in our helplessness, but then, if this is a true relationship, we must allow God to speak into our lives. In the Genesis narrative Abraham received immediate reassurance: “If at Sodom I find 50 just men in the town, I will spare the whole city for them.”

God always speaks to fearful hearts. For Abraham, it was immediate. For us, it frequently takes longer as we learn from within ourselves our desperate need for God’s presence.

As the narrative unfolds Abraham turned prayer into a kind of bargaining. Would the Lord spare the city for 45 just men or even one? It has often been noted that this behaviour reflects the haggling of the ancient marketplace. There is, I suspect, a deeper truth. In prayer, consciously or unconsciously, we try to manipulate God. We find it difficult to trust in his love alone. Could this be why our prayer so often resembles a hastily assembled shopping list?

When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in the familiar words of the Our Father, he introduced them to the fundamental structure of all prayer. “Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come.” Prayer is, first and foremost, a conscious longing to know God and to give ourselves to him. “Give us each day our daily bread.”

Prayer should not become an expression of selfish need, but the trust to believe that in seeking God every true need is satisfied. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive each other.”

True prayer humbly accepts that the generosity we seek from the Father is often lacking in ourselves.

This article first appeared in the July 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.