For centuries, our Church and our cultures have taught us about the "correct" way to approach God (by whatever name He is known). Different societies, ethnic groups and even different religions have come up with "standard" means of practicing prayer – ways of communicating with the transcendent. Men and women throughout history have sought different ways to reach out to God, to "find themselves," to gain nirvana, to get to heaven… Prayer was always considered the first step in the journey.
Young people often abandon the practices of their elders, and older folks sometimes tend to take refuge in the devotions and contemplative activities that their children never knew. Those in between seemed to have given up altogether.
But I think the truth lies in the fact that people today are seeking, as people always have, a way of knowing and caring and living that is better, more fulfilling and more fully human. We all need to be reassured that our values and our traditions are still alive within the community of mankind – despite what is poured out upon us in our news media – and that they are waiting to be nourished. One of these values is prayer.
The Gospel today gives us two examples of prayer. Jesus’ parable should send a signal to people like us who come to church Sunday after Sunday (or even daily), put generous amounts in the collection basket, pledge funds for church building campaigns and diocesan programs and volunteer around the parish and in the community. All this is fine, even exemplary, yet Jesus' parable is still meant for us; we need to check our motives and our attitudes towards self and others. There is a bit of the Pharisee in all of us.
There is a tragic flaw in the Pharisee's prayer. We can assume that he is an exemplary member of his religious community. But we learn from Jesus that "the Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself." This isn't a prayer directed and open to God. Rather, his prayer is about himself and his achievements. The Pharisee seems to love the sound of his own voice praying. He has a rather comfortable life of piety, but his vision doesn't go beyond himself; indeed, he is looking in the wrong direction. He should be focusing on God.
The Pharisee in the parable seems to have practiced his religious observances beyond what was expected of a good Jew, but had lost a deeper sense of who God is and where God's heart lies. Jesus shows where God's heart lies - it is with the repentant tax collector.
One of the reasons we pray is to be open to God's voice and stirrings in our heart. Prayer can change us, make us more aware of how God has often forgiven us and, as a result, make us more forgiving and compassionate towards others in their struggles to change their own lives. The Pharisee doesn't acknowledge his own limitations, nor how much God has forgiven him, so he judges the tax collector harshly.
Looking at his own devout life, the Pharisee thanks God as he "spoke this prayer to himself." While the tax collector, very aware that he needs God's help for what he can't do for himself, begs for forgiveness. His focus in on God and not himself, believing God is merciful.
After all of our talk about the experience of prayer, what is really important is that prayer is not something that we do only for ourselves. We do it also for God, not because He needs our attention, but because He wants it.
Attention is the key word here. Prayer is paying attention to the presence of God. It is tending toward the presence of God. It is intending God's presence. It is being tender with God's presence and being able to live with the tension of God's presence. It is living intensely with God's presence.
Most of us find it difficult to truly pray. God is not plainly visible, or neatly available to us. It's almost as if He is waiting us out in all of the dark corners of our existence.
Finding God is also difficult – especially in the privacy of prayer. Being able to pay attention to His presence is a matter of the very direction of our lives. The person of faith is the one who knows that the Father is the source of his light, life and being. Every act and thought somehow represents his tendency towards God – like the leaves stretching out daily towards the sun. Every experience of our daily lives, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is a tendency toward the beyond, a wish for it, a desire to be engulfed in it. We may not realize it, but this is really a reaching out to possess and to be possessed by God.
I used to use lots of words when praying. I had my daily set of prayers, after which I would ramble on and on praying for a list of others who needed or who had requested my prayers (as if He didn't already know). And I used to joke that the Lord couldn't get a word in edgewise because I had talked so much. While this is an important activity and an essential part of prayer, it didn't leave much time for "paying attention" to God.
The Christian understanding of prayer is one where, even though it involves our active participation, it is an event where God has the primary role. He is the Initiator of our prayer, and prayer is always a response to His invitation. In order to respond, we first must listen, be attentive, to tune in to the power of the Spirit within us already.
Prayer, in this sense, is not so much something we do, but rather a way of seeing and hearing what in fact is already being done.
God is present to us in the most un-magnificent and most ordinary ways. We must be attentive to that presence, because that presence is elusive and fragile and easily missed. Each of us is different, and we each live different styles of life within the community of faith. What the practice of prayer means for each of us will vary also. It may all look different or take different forms, but it will be, finally, the same thing. It will be being attentive to the presence of God in our lives. It will involve being faithful to Him, to ourselves and to one another. It will take perseverance and persistence. It will be both the joy of the mountaintop and the drought of the desert.
But in the end, it will be the prayer of the Spirit who lives within us, praying in silence, "Abba, Father!"