Jesus said to his disciples:
“In praying, do not babble like the pagans,
who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Saint Matthew interjected this version of the Lord's Prayer into Jesus' teaching about almsgiving, prayer and fasting. The editors of our lectionary have wisely chosen to restore the original set and structure of the teachings -- we heard them yesterday -- and offer the Our Father to us today.
Jesus begins with an admonition, "Do not babble like the pagans..." With that warning in mind, we might ask, "How should we approach prayer?"
Prayer leaders, invited to begin or end a formal discussion, will often say, "Let's place ourselves in God's presence." or "Let's call ourselves to prayer." or "Let's settle into a quiet place for a moment." They know we need to pause for a moment, and "to shift gears" from what we have been doing and "reset" our consciousness to prayer.
Essentially we must pay attention to God's presence. "He is here with us." And we must be here with him.
The only true prayer knows that God is "more real" and "more present" than I am, or that we are. God listens, watches and feels everything; he is always here.
I may or may not be actually aware of this moment and God's presence in it. Cartoons like to imagine the cub lion who imagines he has frightened off the ferocious bear, only to discover that Mama Lion was standing behind him and the bear turned and fled at her appearance.
The one who babbles and rattles prayer is obviously unaware. He is shouting to be heard when the one who listens is right next to him. He thinks he must struggle to get attention when the Listener is already attentive.
One night in Louisiana, living alone in an oversized rectory, I suddenly knew that there is a Person in the heart of the Universe. It did not make itself; it has not always been. The universe cannot be a soulless machine, inevitably, pointlessly winding down. Rather, it is the expression of pure generosity of One who is generous.
Christians theology adds much to that reflection; studying Revelation we perceive the Trinity of God. Jesus invites us to pray through Him and in the Holy Spirit to the Father.
The Universe is not listening; there is no karma, fate or doom to react mechanically to our pleas. It will neither punish our wickedness nor reward our virtue.
Rather the Father hears and welcomes our prayers -- and us.