“Our world is often closed to the divine horizon and to the hope that the encounter with God brings”. With these words, Benedict XVI described the reality in which we live. At the same time, the late Pope Ratzinger pointed out that for this reason “Christians today are called to be witnesses of prayer”. Continuing, he shared with the contemporary Church the conviction that “in deep friendship with Jesus and living in Him and with Him the filial relationship with the Father, through our faithful and constant prayer, we can open windows to God’s Heaven. Indeed, in following the path of prayer […] we can help others to follow it» [i].
Lent, which we are experiencing, was considered by the primitive Church to be the privileged time for the preparation of catechumens for the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist which were celebrated during the Easter Vigil. The Lenten period was considered as the time of becoming Christians which did not take place in a single moment but required a long process of conversion and regeneration. During Lent, the Church – echoing the Gospel – proposes some specific commitments that accompany the faithful in this itinerary of interior renewal: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Lent, as Pope Francis reminds us, is a “journey back to the essentials. Prayer reconnects us to God; charity to one’s neighbor; fasting to ourselves. God, neighbors, my life. […] Lent invites us to look upwards, with prayer, which frees us from a horizontal, vertical life, where one finds time for the self but forgets God. And then towards the other, with the charity, which frees us from the vanity of having, from thinking that things are going well if they are going well for me. Finally, it invites us to look within, with fasting, which frees us from attachment to things, from the worldliness that anesthetizes the heart» [ii].
In this reflection, I would now like to dwell on the second pillar of Lent, that of prayer. It reveals the state of health of our being and “helps us to tend to the maximum of love” [iii]. And I will do so by drawing on Jesus’ teaching reported in Mt 6:1-18. Rinaldo Fabris, referring to this passage, speaks of “a small catechism in a parenthetical style of wisdom put together by Matthew to illustrate the true religiosity of the disciples”, “a new way of living religion” [iv].
In Mt 6:1-18 eight times Jesus invokes the name of the “Father” and repeats three times that God the Father never loses sight of us [v]. Jesus assures us that the Father always knows what we need (Mt 6,8.32) and that “when the going gets tough” the Spirit of the Father will speak through us before we can say anything and that not even a hair will fall from our chief (Mt 10:20.29). Jesus, as our brother, teaches us to pray to the Father. Jesus brings us the Good News precisely to make us meet the Father. He does it in the manner of an “older brother” who sits next to his younger brother – so Jesus tells us about the Father our Abba. He teaches us the most beautiful bond: Father-son, he teaches us to talk to him, to entrust ourselves to him, to bring him joy, to bring him glory. He also teaches us to always overcome ourselves to value his will more than ours, because he knows better than we do what we need and wants our good.
In Mt 6:1-18, Jesus makes us encounter the very gaze of the Father: it attracts us, it gives us a sense of presence and loving care, it helps us to see our true worth. Jesus makes us see the good eyes of the Father. In them, we can find our deepest value which does not depend on human opinion, which no unjust judgment can take away from us, and which not even the greatest human appreciation can match.
As mentioned above, in Mt 6:1-18, Jesus refers to the three traditional actions which, in addition to the 613 commandments (Mitzvot) identified in the Torah, represent the observance of full “justice”. Jesus shows us how they can nourish us in a relationship of sonship with the Father. These are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Practices by their nature not imposing, hidden, not aimed at vainglory, but which help us seek the Father’s gaze that he sees in secret.
Like a refrain, Jesus repeats three times: “Your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (6,4.6.18). He convinces us that we are always before the eyes of the Father. God the Father sees what is most hidden, not only what is visible to human eyes. But Jesus also says that God’s gaze does not “follow and chase”, does not look at stumbling blocks, does not control, but looks with love. God the Father does not neglect the slightest good, he sees what is most hidden from human eyes, and he overlooks nothing.
Jesus advises: «When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites who, in the synagogues and in the corners of the squares, love to pray standing up, to be seen by the people. I tell you the truth, they have already received their reward” (v. 5). The verb form used here: ” when you pray (proseuchesthe)” gives the immediate feeling that something is done in a natural way, simply like eating bread every day. Indeed, prayer was a common and frequent practice. She had lived in public and in private, at home and in the synagogue. For an Israelite, a man of faith was synonymous with a man of prayer. By its very nature, prayer consisted in turning one’s whole being towards God.
Sometimes, however, prayer – Jesus underlines – instead of becoming an intimate encounter with God, can be transformed into “a theatrical performance”. There is the danger of distorting it when, instead of seeking God in prayer, I begin to seek myself, instead of his gaze, I seek the gaze of others and focus on myself. So, I’m acting like a hypocrite, because I use it for my own ends: to show my face, to seek recognition. A paradoxical reversal of the order takes place: prayer, which was to become a space for encountering God, for building an intimate relationship with Him as the center of my life, is transformed into a public spectacle, a theater in which recognition is sought for themselves. Prayer done in this way stops outside. It does not lead inside. It distorts the relationship with God. Instead of contemplating His face, contemplate your own image. Instead of glorifying the Father who is in heaven, he falls into self-glorification.
Today we would call this attitude as “narcissistic”. Jesus evokes the image of a hypocrite who must have “electrified” his listeners. As R. Fabris explains it, the hypocrites are the “professionals” of prayer, who, in order to be admired by men in their religious performances, put themselves on display in public prayer. To this exhibitionism, which tends to exploit the relationship with God, the Gospel contrasts prayer made in the most hidden place of the house. Because what gives religious and salvific value to prayer is not the place or the external way of practicing it, but the deep and genuine relationship with the Father [vi].
Continuing his instruction on prayer which “helps to live fully”, Jesus says in a personal, almost intimate way: “Instead, when you pray, go into your room (tameion), close the door and pray to your Father, who is in secret; and your Father, whom he sees in secret, will reward you” (v. 6). “Go into your room!” The Greek term used here ” tameion ” can mean the supply room, a pantry, or the innermost room of the house, hidden and above all not visible from the street [vii]. An eloquent image of a hidden place of prayer, the last of the last places in the house, where one shares one’s secrets with God. Jesus means to say: the Father’s good gaze is always present right there. He hears you when no one else hears you, He hears your every prayer. Even if your life is quiet, humble, like a “room” into which few look, He always looks at you. Before his eyes you are a beloved son, for eternity: “he will give you back.”
Finally, Jesus teaches us the words with which to pray: “You, therefore, pray like this: Our Father who art in heaven” (v. 8). “To pray to Jesus is to open oneself to the Father […] and his plan is to insert all of us into the” will of the Father “, so that we can all find true peace and happiness in him” [viii]. It should be added that the prayer of the Our Father was placed by Matthew at the center of the sermon on the mount. It is the heart of Jesus’ teaching on the mountain, just as the heart of the Gospel that he preaches is the Father. He teaches us a prayer that brings us into an intimate and trusting relationship with the Father.
In this prayer, every word speaks to us of the Father who sees in secret, of his loving care. At the same time, he helps us to discover the heart of a child within us. He teaches us to pray like a child. He teaches us to bless the Father, to desire him, to entrust ourselves to him, to trust that he will never leave us without bread, that he will always forgive us, and that he will protect me, and save us from evil. Every time we say, “forgive us”, we will remind ourselves many times that he expects from me the same love towards my brothers and sisters, because they too are his children. Jesus, just like an older brother, guides us together and teaches us to pray to a common Father whose sun rises on the good and the bad (Mt 5:45). Calling God “Father” exactly as the following adjective “our” qualifies a relational dynamic.
“I remember a beautiful prayer experience”, says Father Bernhard Häring (1912-1998), an eminent moralist and professor at the Alphonsian Academy, recalling the experience of the Second World War in which he participated as a military chaplain. “On the last evening, when we arrived at the border, beyond which we would join the German army, we found a house that welcomed the wounded with those who cared for them. People came from nearby houses to bring milk and bread. And the following day, before leaving, I asked the lady who had hosted us: “How can you show such mercy towards men of a people who have done so much harm to your people?”. She replied: “We have five children in the Russian army, and we pray to Heavenly Father every day to let us return them home. How could we, today? [ix].
We understand better, then, how our great moral theologian can declare with the simplicity of a child: “I pray because I live because my life is a great gift for me. A gift that God gave me through my parents. […] Then came the gift of awareness: knowing that you are called to pray in order to live fully. […] I pray because I live and try to pray better and better to live fully” [x].
prof. Krzysztof Bieliński, CSsR
[i] Benedict XVI, General Audience, Wednesday, November 30, 2011, in https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/it/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20111130.html [access: 16.02. 2023].
[ii] Francis, Homily, Basilica of Santa Sabina, Wednesday 6 March 2019, in https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/homilies/2019/documents/papa-francesco_20190306_omelia-ceneri.html [access: 02.17.2023].
[iii] B. Häring – V. Salvoldi, I pray because I live. I live because I pray , Cittadella Editrice, Assisi 1997 2 , 49.
[iv] R. Fabris, Matteo , Edizioni Borla, Rome 1982, 148.151.
[v] I refer here to the considerations of K. Wons, Powierzyć się Jezusowi. Rekolekcje ze św. Mateuszem [Trust in Jesus. A retreat with Saint Matthew], Wydawnictwo Salwator, Kraków 2012.
[vi] Cf. R. Fabris, Matteo, 153.
[vii] Cf. DJ Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Elledici, Turin 2005, 85.
[viii] B. Häring – V. Salvoldi, I pray because I live, 82-83.
[ix] B. Häring – V. Salvoldi, I pray because I live, 50.
[x] B. Häring – V. Salvoldi, I pray because I live, 25.