In the nine days following Our Lord’s Ascension, the Holy Apostles and the disciples spent their time in prayer. St Luke tells us that they self-quarantined for their spiritual well-being, not in fear but in preparation, not to keep away from others but to enter into a deeper, closer communion with God.
That’s what prayer is. Entering into a deeper, closer communion with God. Taking our relationship with our Father beyond the wanting and asking stage, beyond seeing God as the one who is supposed to sort out our life, make things better, and fulfill our requests.
Yet too often, my prayer, perhaps like yours, is a list of things that we want God to do, or a list of people we want God to bless. So when we pray, we lay out a series of asks or appeals or even sometimes some demands.
It’s okay to give God a list. But when we do, we’re having a one-way conversation. A monologue, where we say stuff and don’t expect to hear anything back. That is, if we actually say our prayers out loud. But how many times do I pray not aloud but simply in my head? How many times is my prayer to my Father a mental activity; me thinking my requests?
Jesus meets us at this very basic and simple level in today’s Gospel. And He wishes to nudge and lead us into better prayer. He begins where we’re at when He says, “Whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
Asking. With the expectation of getting. Perhaps that’s why our prayers lag. Why we find them a chore. Why praying isn’t enough. Because we see them as transactional, me approaching God and expecting some kind of payoff. As is God is nothing more than a sugar daddy.
When we see God that way, then we think praying is about getting results. Either I should feel differently, or I should see some change (in me, in my situation, in others). And when we don’t get that, we think that prayer is not being heard and not working.
The key to prayer, however, is not the word “Ask.” The Holy Apostles and the disciples did not spend 9 days pestering the Holy Trinity with repeated, mantra-like, petitions and requests. They did not think they could pray themselves out of their difficulties, or pray away the stress, or be prayer warriors for good against evil. The Holy Apostles and the disciples spent 9 days both listening to Our Lord, and then aligning their will and desire with His.
That’s a more mature type of prayer. One that I truly need to work on, and perhaps you as well.
That’s a notion of prayer that begins not with me and my fears and desires and goals for myself or others. Rather, that’s a notion of prayer that begins with taking in and taking to heart Our Lord’s desires, His fears about us, and His vision of what we can truly be in Him.
And that prayer begins with these words: “In my Name. Ask in my Name.”
What does it means to ask in Christ’s name? Two things. First, we’re setting aside, in fact casting off, what we want and think is best in favor of whatever Our Lord Jesus gives, offers, and bestows on us. And second, we’re focused on things that go beyond today’s inconveniences, frustrations, and hardships; and instead are zeroing in on the things that make for our unending peace and joy.
In prayer, that’s what we really should be after. Not temporary fixes or momentary relief. But uninterrupted peace, and the joy that cannot fade. In Jesus’ own words, we’re praying ‘in that day,’ for His day—His day which we get a glimpse of at Mass, and which the angels and saints by their prayers support us in attaining fully after the grave.
So not just getting through life. But getting into the abundant life. That’s the goal of our prayer. So our prayer is aimed at a life where our first thought each day is no longer “what shall I eat, what shall I wear, what shall I do.” Rather, our life is focused on living completely and without reservation for another; and living without limiting our Father to a giver of stuff.
Living life fully. We can do that now, even if we are restricted and limited. Heaven knows that holy men and women did that—in gulags, in concentration camps, in isolation units. And apart from the extremes, they lived life fully in monastic cells, in simple homes, in uncluttered lives—by living in relationship, in communion, in the joy of their heavenly Father.
Living life fully, even though we are now restricted; living unencumbered by the clutter in our heads and the many things we think we must have; living the life to come, now in the present—that is where our prayer should lead.
Our prayer, then, ought not be based on what we can get from God. Instead, our prayer should be entering into a conversation with a person. In fact, with the three Persons who speak with the same united voice.
That the Three-in-One speak implies that we hear. In fact, that our prayer begins with hearing. That we listen when we pray.
So much noise gets in the way. In our heart. In our head. In the stuff swirling around us. So much noise, which distracts, frightens, worries, and creates doubts.
To quiet the noise means that we begin simply: by saying aloud the words that Our Lord Jesus prayed. Words that speak to our anxieties and hopes. Words that chase away the noise, as we listen attentively.
The listening, then, is not listening for something inside our hearts or minds. The listening is picking up and reading aloud the words of the Psalms. And thinking through how they fit. And asking the Spirit to help us see what is hard to see.
Starting with the Psalms is starting with the Prayer Book Jesus wrote and used. Those prayers are less about asking or telling God what to do, and more about talking to our Father and His Son about what angers or frustrates, what scares or worries, and what excites and encourages us.
That’s the kind of conversation that builds and maintains a relationship. And that’s what the Holy Apostles and the disciples were doing, isolated from all others, for nine days. They were laying open their hearts by borrowing words that Jesus Himself had loaned them in His Psalms.
And then we progress in our prayers from asking—to saying, “We are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should ask You” anything. On account of this, we will be with You, O Lord, regardless of how our life now is; we will take up Your words and make them our own, so that Your way and will truly becomes our will and way of life.
To this Lord Jesus, who prays the Father for us, together with His all-holy Father and live-giving Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever and unto the ages of ages.