How to pray.
Lots of people want to know that, and would spend lots of time reading “how-to” books on the topic.
What about a “how-not-to-pray” book? Less people might pick that up.
In the Gospel of Matthew — in a reading we hear on Ash Wednesday — Jesus tells us how not to pray (Mt 6:5-15).
No, it’s not about skipping Mass on Sunday or forgetting the prayers we learned in childhood. Instead, Jesus gives several clear points on what we might be doing wrong when we think we are praying well. Jesus’ “how-not-to” is part of the Sermon on the Mount, which gives us several how-to’s and how-not-to’s — including “how not to fast” (look glum and don’t wash up) and “how not to give alms” (let everyone, including your “left hand,” know that you’re doing it.)
The basic message of all three of these “don’ts,” as Jesuit Fr. Daniel Harrington, a biblical scholar, reminds us is “that religious acts should be done to honor God and not simply to better one’s reputation.”
The basic how-not-to’s for prayer, as well as almsgiving and fasting, are these:
- Don’t do it for show or to give false impressions.
- Don’t ramble on to impress either God or others.
- Don’t repeat yourself over and over.
In all three instances, Jesus also says, “Don’t be like a hypocrite.”
“Hypocrite” has a pretty specific meaning to us today and it’s similar to what people of Jesus’ time also understood. However, they also knew that “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word hypokrites which meant “an actor,” as in one who puts on a show or a false display. This is why we see Jesus speaking negatively about “blowing a trumpet” before you, or “praying aloud on a street corner” like street performer would. He was driving home a point.
If you look at the three “how-not-to’s” about prayer, you’ll notice how they boil down to this one simple “how-to-pray” noted by Dominican Fr. Benedict Viviano: “The positive teaching is that prayer should be (a) sincere personal communion with God and that it should be brief because it is for our good, not God’s, since he already knows what we need.”
In making this points clear, Jesus uses a bit of exaggeration himself. In order to avoid giving false impressions or showing off, he suggests going to your room and praying in private. Not that Jesus is saying that communal prayer is off limits; we all know that Jesus prayed in the synagogue on the Sabbath, which meant he prayed with others. So going to church on Sunday to pray with others is a good thing; but if you’re only going so that your neighbors see how “good” you are, you could be risking the title of “actor.” Alone, in your room, no one sees you but God.
Again, repetitive prayer is also not a bad thing. Jesus tells us “do not babble like the pagans.” Now, he didn’t mean that all repetitive prayer was babbling on. As a good Jew, Jesus would have repeated the Shema prayer many times a day. (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord, your God, is One.”)
Sometimes we just need to rely on an old, familiar prayer to help us settle our minds and hearts into the right place to speak with God. Jesus himself repeated one prayer three times when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. But there was nothing repetitive about it: Jesus was throwing himself at God’s feet.
What Jesus meant about “babbling” was any practice that seems to start “accumulating a tally of certain prayers,” as Fr. Harrington says, adding that such prayer could mean you might be losing your focus on God and “confusing quantity with quality.”
Finally, give up worrying. God hears us. We have to place our needs before God, but we don’t need to do it over and over and over, as if we need to get God’s attention. God knows what we need before we ask, but — because of who we are — we need to ask. Our hearts need to turn toward God and prayer helps us do that. It helps us build trust.
This is what Jesus explained later in the same sermon, referring to birds and flowers: “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6:31-33).
Fr. Harrington reminds us: “God … knows the needs of his children, even before they make their requests, but he wants them to ask in confidence and trust. In petition, we do not so much inform God of some situation as express our dependence and faith.”
Finally, after telling us “how-not-to” pray (or give alms or fast), Jesus then tells us how to pray. He gives us the Lord’s Prayer: short, simple and to the point. Containing only two real parts — often called the “you petitions” and the “we petitions” in Matthew’s version — this prayer reminds of all that is really important. It’s a basic how-to, both of prayer and of living: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
Sources: “The New Jerome Biblical Commentary”; “The Collegeville Biblical Commentary”; “United States Catholic Catechism for Adults”; the Carmelite Lectio Divina at ocarm.org.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press. Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by Our Sunday Visitor Press in Spring 2014.