Prayer nurtures our life of faith as oxygen gives life to fire. Like the eternal flames that burn in front of the Tombs of Unknown Soldiers in different countries, prayer helps us tap into a source of vitality that can never be exhausted: God’s grace and life.
So, it’s good periodically to assess the forms of our prayer in order to make sure we are in fact drawing life from that source of life and not just babbling on the like the pagans as our Lord warned in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:7).
Here is a checklist to evaluate and strengthen our prayer lives as we march forward into our ordinary lives of faith in Ordinary Time again. Prayer, to be “effective” in giving us life, bears these seven characteristics:
1. It is simple: The “prayer of the heart” best fulfills the Lord’s will for effective prayer; not the multiplication of words. Ten or fifteen minutes praying about one thing with true conviction, in silence, with focused attention on the Lord’s goodness, is better than an hour of wandering prayer about everything. Call to mind all those people in the Gospel stories who came to Jesus with one single intention in mind – usually for healing or liberation from demons – and imitate them. Keep it simple in both subject matter and focus because single-minded prayers pierce heaven.
2. It is fervent: Prayer is not a matter of sitting back and passively hoping the Lord will wave His magic wand to fix our problems. Remember what He Himself recommended as a prayer practice: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). He is saying that we must be fervent about the things we ask of Him: asking, seeking, and knocking are all characteristics of a person who really wants something. The next point follows logically.
3. It is persistent: A child who desperately wants a toy begs and pleads and pesters his mom until he gets it. The Syro-Phoenician woman who came to Jesus (Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-29) to ask Him to cast a demon from her daughter was one of those childlike persisters. She had to overcome multiple barriers: miles of travel, the resistence of the Apostles, and what seemed like a rude brush-off by Jesus. She pushed through all those obstacles and obtained what she wanted. The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) tells a similar story. Many people do not see an answer to their prayers because they give up too soon!
4. It doesn’t doubt: A condition for receiving what we ask for in prayer is that we should not doubt God’s desire to give us what we need. When the disciples asked what had happened to a withered fig tree that Jesus had cursed, He replied: “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done” (Matthew 21:22). This is another way of saying that prayer is an exercise in faith and trust in God. Don’t expect Him to do everything you want, but don’t doubt that He will do something!
5. It is humble: Our modern entitlement mentality couldn’t be more damaging to prayer when we approach God with it. Humans are in no position to demand anything from God, as if the Lord of heaven and earth owes us something. Rather, we approach with the humble petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10). We pray with specific intentions in mind, of course, but we must humble ourselves before Him and ask that His will be accomplished through our prayer for these very things. We may be surprised that He has something better in store for us than what we ask.
6. It is charitable: Did you ever notice how many people came to Jesus asking for the healing of another person? A priest friend of mine once told the story about getting a sprained ankle while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, he prayed fervently for the needs of his companions on the trip and then added, as an afterthought: “Maybe, Lord, you can do something about this ankle of mine, if you have a minute.” By the time he walked out of the Church his ankle was completely healed! Prayer is charitable, and we can rest assured that God always rewards those who intercede for the good of others.
7. It is angelic: Too often we overlook the most potent force behind our prayer, our Guardian Angel. God gives us personal angels for this very reason – they are huge prayer support. St. Padre Pio used to “send” his guardian angel to assist other people in coordination with their guardian angels. Our angel also prays for us and teaches us how to pray and worship. Have no doubt: a regular familiarity with our personal spiritual guide and mentor is an immense help to making our prayer more effective and pleasing in God’s eyes.
These are seven characteristics of effective prayer. There are more, of course, because prayer is in inexhaustible source of grace, but these seven serve as a summary of the Lord’s teaching on prayer. Now we only have to put them into practice.
[Note: Next week I’ll address a related topic, “Seven Reliable Prayer Habits.”]