“when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:7–13 ESV)
The words of Our Lord from the Sermon on the Mount set forth those very words which have formed the backbone of Christian prayer since the very beginning, a way of praying, not with many words, but with the simplicity of children, honoring their Heavenly Father, asking for their daily needs, praying for their forgiveness, and invoking protection against all evil. The Lord’s Prayer, it has been said, sets forth the “pattern and practice of prayer.”
It is a pattern very much like the sort of pattern one would use in sewing a dress or a shirt. I remember as a child, my mother enjoyed sewing from patterns. She would lay out the fabric, pinning the pattern to the fabric, and carefully cutting out each piece. Patterns are necessary because without them, the product of our labors is rather haphazard and disjointed. We need a pattern of prayer because intentionality and order in prayer are precisely the things which lead us to fruitful prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is like a trellis for a vine, without a trellis, the vine will be untrained and unfruitful. What we find in the Christian life is that, as opposed to shaping prayer to our own lives, it is we who are molded to prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer sets forth the practice of prayer in that, in regularly reciting it, our own prayers flow out of the simplicity and the goodness of the Lord’s own prayer to the Father, not empty phrases, or many words, but the prayer of one who is already known by God.
All of this is to say that if you’re struggling with prayer, perhaps it is time to give up on seeing prayer as something you do and start seeing it as a gift of a loving Father, who invites you to speak, in simplicity and trust, of those desires of the heart he already knows. Teresa of Avila once remarked “Prayer is loving intercourse with God.” She said this because she knew the intimacy of knowing God, not so much as a friend, but as a marital lover. Perhaps that scandalizes you, but it is precisely the heart of Christian prayer – all at once a sacredness, intimacy, and even a hidden, private love which brings joy to the heart and trust to our wills.
In Lent, prayer comes into focus as a discipline, meaning that it requires the heart of a learner. Consider taking 15 minutes a day to come to the Lord and ask him, as did his disciples, to teach you to pray. Slowly, and with intention to learn, take up the Lord’s Prayer. Let the words wash over you. If distractions come, simply tell them to wait until the 15 mintues are over. When you are finished, take the time to truly listen, and in the end, give thanks for that time.
If you struggle to keep up the discipline, remember that you’re learning. Most of us are, in truth, still learning to pray. Ask the Lord to help you. Ask for the grace to be attentive and to be given the gift of prayer. What you’ll find is that the practice of prayer is what gives shape to discipline and not only discipline, but great joy and growth.
May the Lord refresh you during this season!
The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He is currently planting churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses through the planting of Anglican churches. For the last several years, he has served on the Catechesis Task Force of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism. As a part of this work, he is currently developing a catechetical consulting practice, aimed at coaching and training clergy and laypeople for the work of catechesis.