“[Jesus] said to [the apostles], “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.”
When our Lord takes the Apostles away to a deserted place, he is not just giving them some time for rest and relaxation. Rather, this is one of the several places in the Gospel where Christ is teaching the disciples about prayer. That might not seem obvious. There are other times, such as when He teaches them the Lord’s prayer, that he is clearly teaching them how to pray. But why would we say that He is doing that here? The Lord is taking the Apostles away to spend time with Him and that is precisely what prayer is – time alone with God.
St. Therese of Lisieux has a wonderful definition of prayer. (If you’re not familiar with St. Therese, she was a cloistered nun mystic from the late 19th Century in France who died at a young age and is still greatly beloved today.) St. Therese wrote, “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.”
That is a beautiful definition of prayer, but it is pretty dense, so let’s break it down into smaller chunks so that we can fully process it. First, Therese says that prayer is a “surge of the heart.” A “surge of the heart” probably makes us think of the emotions, but she is going for something deeper than that. Therese is thinking here of a cultivated desire for God, that is, a virtue, a firmly rooted habit that inclines someone (almost as if by nature) towards the good – in this case, towards God Himself. Sometimes, that surge of the heart happens spontaneously, but sometimes it does not. Often, we do not “feel” like praying, and we need to stir up that passion for ourselves.
When you do not “feel” like praying, it is important to remind yourself of those times we you have felt that closeness to God that inspires prayer as a surge of the heart. Maybe it was when you went on a retreat (such as Christ Renews His Parish), or maybe it was when you experienced an answer to a prayer, or a joyful moment like the birth of a child. When you recall that closeness to God that you experienced in those moments, remember that God is just as close to you now as He was then. His presence with you has never diminished.
The more time that you spend in prayer, the more often you will experience that “surge of the heart” towards God even outside of formal times of prayer. That is because prayer is an act of love. The more time that you spend with someone you love, the more you will desire to spend with him or her. Maybe you can recall how you felt when you and your spouse were just dating. When you are in love, every minute spent in the presence just leaves you wanting to spend more time together. That is how true prayer is between you and God. The more time that we spend with those we love, the more our hearts will surge out to them when we are apart.
Therese also describes prayer as “a simple look turned toward Heaven.” Prayer does not have to be complicated. I am sure that you often feel like you do not have the right words to pray (at least, I often feel that way). The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “[P]rayer is more / Than an order of words, the conscious occupation / Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” Of course, words can be a big help to praying, but prayer is a lot more than words. The best prayers, really, have no words at all. The simple look that a young child directs up at her father causes his heart to swell with love. So too do our glances up to our Heavenly Father. That too is prayer.
Prayer is also, St. Therese says, a “cry of recognition and of love.” In prayer, we recognize God for who He is – the Lord of the universe and the Lord of our lives. Just telling God this is already a prayer. In prayer, we recognize ourselves for who we are, reflected in the reality of God. In that intimate conversation with God that is prayer, we learn a lot about ourselves too – we learn to recognize ourselves in Him.
The last part of St. Therese’s definition of prayer is that it “[embraces] both trial and joy.” Most of the time in life, we are encouraged not just to bring problems, but solutions. That has become a kind of mantra in the workplace – “don’t just bring a problem, bring a solution.” Prayer is completely different. God does not want us to bring our ready-made solutions to be rubber-stamped for His approval. Instead, God wants us to bring us problems without solutions, so that we might discover His solutions to our problems – not in the logic of the world – but in the logic of His love.
Perhaps an even more fundamental question than, “what is prayer?” is “Why should I pray?” Prayer is our expression of our friendship with God. If you have not talked with someone in a long time, you are probably not close friends with that person. Better yet, if someone is in the same room as you and you ignore her, you are certainly not close friends.
God is always present to us and constantly able to be encountered (in our own hearts, in those around us, in His Word, and, most importantly, in His sacramental presence in the Eucharist). Sometimes we even come into God’s house, into His real presence in the Eucharist, and still allow our minds to be distracted by so many other concerns rather than dedicating this time to prayer. If we do not acknowledge the presence of a friend, we are not friends. If we do not acknowledge God’s constant presence with us – and particularly His presence here in the Eucharist – how can we say that we are His friends?
You will probably remember the injunction of St. Paul to “pray constantly” (1 Thes. 5:17). We know that we are supposed to imbue our whole day with prayer, but we cannot do that if we do not also have dedicated times of prayer. The person who has a firm habit of prayer by dedicating specific time every day to prayer is more easily taken by that surge of the heart back into true prayer during his daily activities.
You probably think of prayer as something that you do, but that is not the whole story. Prayer is even more God’s work than it is our own. When we pray, we are not just expressing our desire for God, but we are actually responding to God’s desire for us.
The Gospels relate how the Lord asked a woman for a drink of water at a well. It seems commonplace, but it is really marvelous. Why would He need anything from her? And why would He need anything from us? The Catechism puts it this way, “The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts (as He says too from the Cross); his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him” (CCC 2560).
That is another great definition of prayer, “the encounter of God’s thirst with ours.” Prayer is a two-way street, it is both what you do and also what God does. Even before you begin to pray, God is thirsting for you, thirsting for that time that you will spend with Him in prayer. What an incredible motivation to want to pray! God is thirsty for you, God wants you to recognize His presence and respond to His love in prayer.
A detail about the Lord taking the Apostles away to pray should prompt a third question about prayer: “With whom should we pray?” The Lord takes the Apostles away to a deserted place, but He takes them together. Prayer is not just something that you do one your own.
First, you should pray as a family. Dedicate time every day to praying together. Teach your children their prayers, but even more importantly, teach them how to pray by your own example. The most formative religious experience of my childhood (outside of the Sacraments) was hearing my father, mother, and grandmother pray every evening. Make sure your children get to listen in on your conversation with God.
Kids also love repetition and routine. If you do something twice, it is a tradition and they will insist that you keep doing it. That makes the rosary a great family prayer. The rosary also gives children the opportunity to take initiative and to lead prayer once they are ready. Children also respond to tactile stimulations – they love to touch and to feel. Yet another reason that the rosary is such a great prayer for children.
On my blog there is a link to a wonderful book called The Little Oratory that has lots of other great ideas for how to foster prayer and devotion in your family. I hope that you will check it out. You can also find there the quotes I used into today’s sermon as well as other book recommendations to go deeper in prayer.
Second, you should pray as a couple. Common prayer is essential to a marriage’s success. I could preach an entire sermon on this, but suffice it to say that couples that pray together have a miniscule divorce rate.
Lastly, we should also pray alone with the Lord. You will not be able to lead your children, spouse, or others deeper into prayer if you do not have your own friendship with the Lord that is sustained by personal prayer. Do not just make a generic goal of “spending more time in prayer.” Be concrete. Make a commitment to a certain amount of time and a certain time of the day or week. The more time that we spend in prayer, the more our hearts will surge with love of God and the more we will desire to experience His love in prayer.
If we will dedicate time as individuals, as couples, and as families to prayer, responding to the Lord’s invitation to come away with Him to a deserted place, we can experience the “surge of the heart,” the “simple look turned toward heaven,” the “cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” that is true prayer. This authentic prayer has the power to transform your families, your marriages, and each one of us as we respond to God’s immense thirst for us.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist
XVI Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVIII