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There is a wonderful story in Martin Buber’s book, Tales of the Hasidim* about a rabbi and his disciples. They were approaching the door of a synagogue, when the rabbi stopped and said, “We can’t go in there. There are too many prayers.”
“What do you mean?” asked one of the disciples.
“When people only mouth prayers and do not pray from their hearts, the prayers just hang around the ceiling and do not go to heaven. In that synagogue, there are too many prayers hanging around the ceiling.”
That’s one kind of prayer. There is, on the other hand, prayer that, in the words of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) reaches to the clouds (35:17)—the clouds, of course, being a symbol for the heart of God.
The text goes on: The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds. It does not rest until it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly, and affirms the right. The Lord will not delay (35: 17-19)
What qualities do our prayers need to have in order to pierce the clouds? Let’s see what the Scriptures have to say:
1) Humility: In the story about the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18: 9-14), the Lord talks about two pray-ers: one, the Pharisee, who makes his pious practices the heart of his relationship with God, and the other, the tax collector, who bases his relationship with God on God’s mercy.
In this gospel story, we have two lessons, one on how not to pray, and another on how to pray.
So much is this story at the essence of how to pray that the Eastern Church used the prayer of the tax collector as the foundation for the famous Jesus Prayer.
They add the name of Jesus which, according to Acts 4:12, is the only name by which we can be saved.
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
2) Faith: The Lord tells us that even if our faith were as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20), we could say to this mountain ‘be lifted up and thrown into the sea’ and it would be done. Now, speaking for myself, this kind of faith is beyond my efforts most of the time. However, such faith is the ideal we should aim for.
Our Lady at Cana is the great example of this kind of prayer. She simply went to Jesus and said, They have no wine (John 2:3). She trusted absolutely that he would do something about it.
Certain kinds of prayers are more likely to pierce the clouds than others. Such as? Let’s look at Scripture again.
Praying for others: I think our prayers of petition are probably at their best, at their purest, when we are praying for others.
We should pray for ourselves, of course, like the tax collector, but it’s perhaps harder to achieve purity of heart when we are praying for ourselves.
(When we pray for ourselves, it might be good to add, “Lord, I believe you will answer my prayer, but help my lack of purity of heart.”)
One outstanding example of purity of heart in praying for others is the story of the Canaanite woman praying for her daughter (Mt 15:21-28).
A mother praying for her child, is praying a prayer that pierces the clouds; it is akin to the prayer of the orphan and the widow in Sirach 35: 13-14, in which we read: He hears the cry of the oppressed. The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan or to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
This Canaanite mother is totally helpless. She is not concerned with the form of her prayer, with saying the right words. She doesn’t care if she appears to grovel, eating the crumbs of grace that the Lord will throw down to her. She is totally absorbed in asking a cure for her daughter, and she will not take no for an answer.
Jesus acknowledges her great faith and the purity of her prayer, and he grants her petition.
I think we have all prayed like this at times, when some friend of ours or situation needs a great grace from God. Such a self-forgetting prayer for others often pierces the clouds.
The story of the Roman Centurion praying for a cure for his servant is another example of praying for others that combines self-forgetfulness and absolute faith. It is a selfless and humble prayer. The centurion is an important figure but he does not allow his position to prevent him from a humble request.
And he knows how authority works; and he believes absolutely in the Lord’s authority to heal his son.
Jesus marvels at his faith and says he hasn’t found such faith in all of Israel (Matt 5:8). He grants his petition. Again, forgetfulness of self and concern for others are great keys to purity of heart in prayer.
What about when we don’t know how to pray? This happens to all of us at times.
There is a marvellous teaching in the stories of the Desert Fathers about this.
A disciple comes to his abba (spiritual father) in the desert and says he has a bad foot and doesn’t know how to pray about it. Should he pray for a healing or for the grace to suffer?
The abba lifts up his foot, points to it, and says, “Just go before the Lord, and say, ‘Foot!’ ”
There is another story about St. Cuthbert, an English saint from the holy isle of Lindisfarne.
One day he looked down the coast and saw great flames where a castle was located. He turned towards the blaze, held out his hands and cried: “Lord, fire!” The fire ceased immediately.
So when you want to pray for somebody, someone in your family, for example, and don’t know what to pray for, just say, “Lord, Mom!” or “Lord, Susanne!” or “Lord, Tom!” Let God figure out what to do.
The Holy Spirit can also teach you a very personal prayer.
I suggest to you that the Holy Spirit can—and probably already has—taught you a very personal prayer, different from all the official prayers of the Church or in the prayer books. Don’t hesitate to believe in this personal teaching of the Spirit.
A good contemporary example of this is St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, who was recently canonized. The Holy Spirit taught her a prayer from Ephesians 1: 12: that we might exist for the praise of his glory. Her prayer was directed to the praise of the glory of the Trinity dwelling within her, and this prayer became the center of her whole contemplative life.
St. Paul said that often we don’t know how to pray, and then the Spirit prays within us. Ultimately you need to believe that the Holy Spirit will teach you how to pray a prayer that pierces the clouds. Trust that you have this Prayer Guide within you. He himself will teach you how to make your prayers pierce the heart of God.
*A branch of Orthodox Judaism