Q: Archbishop J, why do we pray?
Prayer for the Christian is like water for fish. It is through prayer that we realise the full measure of God’s intention for us—mystical union with the Trinity.
To pray is to realise the truth that we are in God: in Him we live and move and have our being. This is not the usual experience of our day or our life but it is the truth. We are in God in a very special way. Prayer does not bring this about. It allows us to realise this union and give way to God.
Writing to the Ephesians, St Paul says in “all your prayer and entreaty” keep praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion. Never get tired of staying awake to pray for “all God’s holy people” (Eph 6:18).
The text is important for several reasons. First, note the double ALL: all your prayers, and on every occasion pray for all God’s people. St Paul is leaving nothing to chance. This is as inclusive as possible. The Christian is called to pray constantly and the prayer should be in the Spirit, and offered for all the saints.
The fuller text, Ephesians 6:10–20, speaks about putting on the armour of Christ. St Paul lists six items worn by the Roman soldier: belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet and sword. Then comes our verse about prayer. The invocation to prayer is not the seventh item of clothing to be put on; it is the portal through which the other six makes sense. It is on a very different level.
This call to pray constantly arises from St Paul’s understanding of the life of grace of the believer. Let us explore the Letter more deeply to follow his logic.
In his book the Message of the Ephesians, John R W Stott divides the text into four sections:
The new life which God has given us in Christ (1:3–2:10)
The new society which God has created through Christ (2:11–3:21)
The new standards which God expects of his new society, especially unity and purity (4:1–5:21)
The new relationships into which God has brought us—harmony in the home and hostility to the devil (5:21–6:24)
This flow of the text allows us to begin understanding the insistence on prayer. To understand better we need to look more deeply at a pivotal text in the Letter, Ephesians 2:3–10.
It states: “But God, being rich in mercy, through the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, brought us to life with Christ (it is through grace that you have been saved) and raised us up with him and gave us a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus. This was to show for all ages to come, through his goodness towards us in Christ Jesus, how extraordinarily rich he is in grace. Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life.”
Prayer is a response to what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. It is by recognising the generosity of God to us that we are moved to be generous to God.
This movement is prayer: the giving of ourselves in love to a loving and merciful God. It is the only response that makes sense given the extraordinary nature of the grace that we have received. We pray because we have been loved incredibly by God.
Mystery is central to the inner logic of the text: We were (1) dead to sin, 2:5; (2) brought to life in Christ, 2:5; (3) saved us by His grace through faith, 2:8; and (4) reconciled by God—Jews and Gentiles—to form one body, 3:9.
In Ephesians 3, St Paul speaks about the mystery (v 3,4,6, 9). He says: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”
At the core of the mystery is the constant phrase: we are “in Christ”. Read Ephesians 1:3–14, the prayer at the beginning of the Epistle. St Paul uses “in Christ” at least 11 times. We are in Christ as a fish is in water.
To pray is to recognise the truth that we live and move and have our being in Christ; to remain connected to the core of our spiritual life. It is to recognise that when we were dead in our sins, God raised us to life in Christ. This raising to life is the most precious gift we have ever received. Prayer is a response to the gift of grace that we have freely received from Christ.
To deepen our understanding, St Paul uses the metaphor of the union of a married couple to speak about our participation in Christ—the total intimacy to which we are called.
This is the point and purpose of prayer: to understand the depth of the mystery from inside. We are alive in Christ and are called to nuptial union. It is through prayer that we discover the deepest truth of our being—we are children of God. So it is not God that needs our prayer. It is we who need prayer to remain alert to the truth of who we are in Christ.
Key Message: Prayer is necessary for our sake; it allows us to live the full truth of our call from God by realising the intimacy to which we are called.
Action Step: Review your prayer practise and commit to increasing your rhythm of prayer to a daily practice with a fixed way of praying—Lectio Divina, Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, Rosary, Prayer of the Church, the Examen Prayer.
Scripture reading: Read the Letter to Ephesians; meditate especially on the two prayers—1:3–14 & 3:14–21. Also meditate on the key text where St Paul shows us what we have received in Christ: 2:3–10 & 3:3–9.