The Gospel for last Sunday (Luke 17:11-19) gives us a big hint about the heart of true Christian prayer – thanksgiving. But notice that although only 1 leper returns to give thanks, all 10 of them are healed. God, with his gift of life, is present with all of us whether we respond to him or not. As we heard in the 2nd Reading (2 Tim 2:8-13) “God is always faithful” whatever we are like. Prayer therefore is not a matter of trying to reach God, for he is already with us. No, it is about responding to his presence and his activity, to the fact that he is already here in our midst – to turn, as that one leper did, and give praise to Him.
But how do we do this? Of course, when something really good happens to us, it’s easy to give thanks. But most of the time life is fairly ordinary or even plain difficult, isn’t it, and then it’s much harder to work out how to give thanks or to respond to anything God is saying to us or doing within us. That’s surely why Jesus gave us a particular way of realising his presence and saying thank you – a way of doing something even when we are not feeling much. He took bread and wine and gave thanks and said “Do this in memory of me.” We pray in Jesus and through Jesus in this great action, often called the Eucharist – the Thanksgiving – and we do so whatever we are feeling like. It’s a bit like supporting a friend if they have to go to hospital. We show our love or friendship by being with them, even if we have to wait for hours for the doctor and would both prefer to be doing something else.
It’s just the same with our private prayer. The important thing is to find time simply to offer our presence to God whatever we are feeling like. Sometimes, like that leper, we may find it easy to praise God at the top of our voice.. maybe even singing our favourite song of praise! At other times when we are in deep despair, we may find that the only thing we can do is say a prayer we know by heart, or simply call out in desperation as those lepers did, “Lord have mercy”. But at lots of other times, prayer will be more ordinary, and then it is more of a learning process, a time when we allow God to help us to be more aware of his presence simply by trying to concentrate on him rather than anything else, even for 5 minutes
As a child, you were probably taught to say prayers that you learnt by heart during a prayer time like this. But actually we need to take God much deeper into our hearts and minds than just saying words can do. This process can take a number of forms. As at Mass, we might start with prayers we know or read a short passage from the Bible and see if any words in it speak to our situation. But then we need to enter into our thoughts beneath the words. This is called Mental Prayer or Meditation, where we sit or kneel and think through these words in our mind without saying anything to God at all. As we do so, we will find our mind thinking through other things going on in our lives, and then gently every now and again, before our mind wanders right off the subject, we need to link them back to what we think God may be saying to us about these things.
Another help to meditate is given to us from our 1st reading today. (2 Kings 5L14-17) Naaman is healed and wants to turn it into a bargaining situation. “Ok so you’ve healed me, how much will it cost?” But Elisha will take nothing, and in doing so challenges Naaman to respond in a different way, to offer his life to the living God. He decides to do so by creating for himself a holy space using the earth he carries home with him. Now don’t panic, I am not suggesting you all go out and dig up some earth and take it home with you. No, what I am suggesting is what some of you probably already do. Create your own holy space back in your room, with a cross or a picture or an icon as a visual focus – I always have a bible ready to open as well – and then make that the place where you regularly offer your life to God. Like Naaman, you might add to it various other items that help you here. Yes it could even be a stone or a bit of earth, but more likely a picture or some other object that links you with your family or your loved one, or your favourite place.
This concentrated time with God, however it is spent, is meant to help us be more aware of God’s presence, of God speaking to us in everything else we do. That’s why I always suggest to people beginning to pray like this that they run through their day with God just as they might share their day with a friend, chatting and listening, so that we get into the habit of doing this throughout the day and not just at set prayer times.
In the end prayer must be a combination of all the things I have mentioned. Saying actual prayers to God, as we do at Mass, listening to what God is saying both in the Bible and deep in our own thoughts, and looking at things that help us think about God and give praise to him. Then we may well hear Jesus say to us, as he did to that leper “Stand up and go on your way” and we will know that wherever that way leads us in our busy lives, we will be more and more aware that in every situation, God is with us.