A few days before Christmas, I dropped into a local hospital to visit some parishioners. As I made my rounds, checking one room after another off my list, I came across what I thought would be my final stop.
But the man I’d come to visit was away for some tests. I was just about to leave when a voice from the other side of the room called out.
“Father,” the voice said. “You don’t know me and I am not of your flock, but….”
The man paused and began to choke up.
“I wonder if you could teach me to pray?”
My pen and paper went into my pocket.
“Of course I can try, but first, who are you?”
Over the next few minutes the widower described a journey which led him only 30 minutes earlier to be told that the cancer which sent him to hospital was now leading him into the final days of his life.
“I have never been much for God, prayer or the stuff you are about, Father,” he said, “but somehow when you walked in, I knew I needed to be.”
In the following days our visits moved from his hospital bedside to a room at the hospice to a quiet moment a few days after Christmas when Corey and God (we trust) met face to face. The words of our first encounter became the focus of all our days — “I wondered if you could teach me to pray?”
Over the coming weeks I would like to relay some thoughts about prayer that I shared with Corey. I will cover four areas: What is prayer? Is there a right way to pray? What if my prayer is quiet as opposed to loud? How can I grow in prayer?
A survey conducted last March by the Angus Reid Institute found that among the 20 per cent of Canadians who say they pray every day, most pray out of gratitude. But when people who pray infrequently — fewer than two to three times a week — address a supreme being, chances are they pray to ask for something.
Prayer is more than a “Hail Mary” in a time of need. It is an ongoing connection with God. My friend Corey did not ask me to pray for him; he wanted to know how he could pray. That immediately struck me. His budding prayer life already had depth. Corey needed to learn the rubrics and, even more, become reacquainted with a friend who had never left his side.
So what is prayer? Basically, it’s an encounter with a friend. But what should that encounter entail?
Although some people sincerely petition God to address the needs of others, frequently we pray for what we want. We tell God our list of wants, needs and requirements. I need a job, more money, a change of pace, a more meaningful relationship, a less stressful life, better health.
For others, prayer is often about informing, advising and correcting God. We tell God that He doesn’t get it. That there is something going on in our life that we seem to think He does not already know, and then often we try to tell Him how to handle it, fix it or make it into what we want. We seem to be praying for “our kingdom come” instead of “thy Kingdom come.”
Here’s the rub: if we pray for our kingdom, we get more of us; if we pray for His kingdom, we get more of Him.
So we must answer this question to truly know how to pray: do we want more of us in it or do we want more of God because of it?
Prayer is about an encounter with a friend who already knows what is going on. We need to take time to listen and understand what it means. So if you want more of God in your life, then pray to understand, not necessarily to inform. Spend time with Him as a good friend would — listening, seeking to comprehend and finding the way.
In one of my encounters with Corey he told me about a time in his life when he “prayed.” He said he had a fight with God because he told God what needed to happen but God didn’t do it. Corey was upset because his plan didn’t come together. A year later, he was grateful it did not and said he had a sense that maybe God knew what He was doing.
Ever had one of those realizations when you are thankful God didn’t do things your way? Or do you spend a lot of time in prayer informing, advising and correcting God? Are you praying for your will or His will to be done on Earth as well as in Heaven? Answering those questions and living them are the first steps in coming to understand what is prayer.
This week, take some time to be aware of your prayer and your encounter with your friend. Try to determine if you are prone to talking and telling, or if you are seeking to listen and learn. Next week, we’ll look at whether there is a right way to pray.
(Fr. Freitas is the pastor at St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Cambridge, Ont., and the author of More Than Survive, available from Catholic Register Books.)