Prayer and the nearness of God

Father John A. Kiley

When a believer has finished saying his or her prayers, it is most likely then that the pious soul really has begun to pray. Traditional prayers are the lullaby, if you will, that quiets down the disciple’s thoughts and emotions and inclinations so that really true prayer, a prevailing awareness of the presence of God, may overtake the Christian’s mind and heart and feelings. More than talking to God, prayer is an awareness of the presence of God in the soul, in creation and in history.
The ancients used to pray out loud, even when they were engaged in what might be called private prayer. Consider the childless Hannah who came to the Temple asking God to relieve her of the shame of her barren status. The First Book of Samuel reads: “As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth, for Hannah was praying silently; though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard. Eli, thinking she was drunk, said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up from your wine!’” Actually Hannah was indeed praying. But her appreciation of the nearness of God to her heart and to her soul made spoken prayer unnecessary. She was not talking to God out there; she was acknowledging God quite present within. Hannah replied to Eli, “No, my lord! I am an unhappy woman. I have had neither wine nor liquor; I was only pouring out my heart to the LORD.” Hannah knew that true prayer takes place in the heart and not on the lips.
Another admirable model of prayer from the Scripture is the prophetess Anna who literally haunted Jerusalem’s Temple, sharing her oracles about the new child to come from God, fasting from earthly comforts, and worshipping with prayer before God “night and day.” Anna sensed the presence of God in that ancient sanctuary. The whole environment awakened her perception of the Divine Presence: the rituals of the priests, the devotion of the pilgrims, the solemnity of the structure itself. Enveloped by an aura of prayer, personal prayer became second nature to her, uninterruptedly “night and day.”
St. Paul is also eager to advise the early Christian community at Rome that he is man of frequent prayer. He is not boasting of his piety, but is reassuring the young Church in Italy that even this singularly blessed disciple found frequent prayer effective. The Apostle writes, “God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in proclaiming the gospel of his Son, that I remember you constantly, always asking in my prayers that somehow by God’s will I may at last find my way clear to come to you.” So St. Paul prayed “constantly” and “always.” Prayer was a way of life, a regular habit, a frequent occurrence. Sensing the nearness of God at prayer, St. Paul could present confidently and assuredly his own deeply felt intentions and plans. Thanks to the enduring presence of God, St. Paul perceived that his prayers where heard as soon as they were uttered.
Jesus of course is the believer’s pre-eminent model for prayer. St. Luke reports more than once on Jesus’ prayer life: “The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.” St. Mark certainly concurs, “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” Clearly God was always present to Jesus every minute of every day. They did after all share the same Divine Nature. Yet Jesus experienced the need to re-enforce his appreciation of the Divine Presence by literally sneaking away to make time to focus without interruption and without distraction on the God who was central to his heart and soul. No doubt Christ said special prayers to his Father just as any Christian does. Christ’s poignant prayer for deliverance at the Garden of Gethsemane was quite pointed, “Father, let this cup pass away from me. Yet your Will, not mine, be done.” The devout are likewise always free to express their intentions as Jesus did. But as with Jesus, these intentions should be expressed knowing God is there in one’s own select spot, be it Hanna’s and Anna’s Temple, or St. Paul’s writing desk, or Christ’s many off the beaten path retreats.
Effective prayer generates an appreciation of the existence and nearness of God. This is true of liturgical prayer like the Mass, or community prayer like the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross, as well as private prayer read from pious pamphlets and holy cards or just uttered from the depths of one’s heart. Prayer is the warmth engendered by an awareness of the nearness of God, an ideal Lenten consideration.