In my own life experience, as in the life of many Christians, prayer is almost as natural as breathing. As a young student in Catholic school, I can remember learning the basic prayers of the faith: the “Our Father”, the “Hail Mary”, the Sign of the Cross, and the “Glory Be”. We attended Mass twice a week during the school year and on Fridays during Lent we prayed the Stations of the Cross. As a class, we visited the confessional twice a year and prayed the rosary as a school on occasion. When I was 8 years old, I started serving as an altar boy. Meanwhile, at home, my mother and I would pray before I fell asleep every night. At every evening meal, my family prayed:
“Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts
which we are about to receive
from thy bounty,
through Christ our Lord. Amen”.
Whether I wanted it to or not prayer formed an integral part of my budding spirituality. I don’t know if I’ll live to ever fully appreciate the extent to which prayer has shaped my life.
Pictured above: My old elementary school, St. Patrick's Catholic School in Kokomo, Indiana
Pictured (from left to right): Brother James Nathaniel, SSF; his brother, Vincent, and his sister, Katharine. Photo was taken on the first day of Catholic school in the late 1990s.
After finishing Gerhard Lohfink’s new book, Prayer Takes Us Home (Liturgical Press, 2020, $24.95), I feel incapable of relaying just how much more I still have yet to learn about prayer. Lohfink is a German Catholic priest and New Testament scholar with whose works I am, sadly, only recently acquainted. I first picked up Lohfink’s 2012 book Jesus of Nazareth at a Jesuit retreat I took in 2019. I thought it would read as a nice, little book of reflections concerning Jesus and his ministry.
I was very wrong.
Jesus of Nazareth, like Prayer Takes Us Home, is a theologically and spiritually rich book. In order to fully take it in, it requires some periods of reflection after reading. That does not mean one necessarily must be a theologian to appreciate it or, likewise, Prayer Takes Us Home. On the contrary, Lohfink uses language and concepts familiar to those who, like me, are not professional theologians but just someone interested in learning more about Christian prayer. According to Lohfink, Prayer Takes Us Home “is not intended to offer a comprehensive or systemic doctrine of prayer.” Instead, as the book’s subtitle states, Lohfink attempts (and I believe succeeds) in presenting a theology of prayer to which readers can apply in their everyday life.
Prayer is, after all, personal. Lohfink is keenly aware that to talk about prayer in an academic sense can appear divorced from the reality we often see on the ground. “Isn’t prayer simply prayer?” Lohfink rhetorically asks. “Isn’t it a kind of obsession on the part of scholars, this attempt to separate things into smaller and smaller categories? Doesn’t that particular species, ‘scholars,’ have a kind of rage for classification in its genes that is not of the slightest use for daily living?” Sometimes it does seem silly to us non-scholars what occupies the time of theologians. After all, does the world need another book on prayer?
I tend to think of teaching people to pray as one may teach a group of school kids the rules of baseball. Sure, one could hand 18 students baseball bats, a ball, gloves, even a lined baseball field and say, “Go for it”. While it would be interesting to see what type of sport the kids invent, it would unlikely be anything we recognize as baseball. We need theologians like Lohfink to teach us how to pray if we are to best use the intellect God has given us. Even Christ’s disciples sought guidance when they asked of him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Given their cultural background, certainly many of Jesus' disciples intellectually knew how to pray. How many Passovers or temple rituals or Sabbaths do you suppose they experienced in their lives before meeting Jesus? Yet, they still sought the words and instruction of Christ. They wanted to know from Jesus himself how they ought to pray. As always, we can learn a lot from this first generation of Jesus-followers.
After reading Lohfink’s book, I found myself more conscientious of the prayers I use and that which my community uses in our daily life. For example, there is a part of Lohfink’s book where he explores prayers of petition. In the Church’s liturgy, we find prayers of petition explicitly in the Prayers of the People (this is not the only place petitions are made; this is just an example). Lohfink seems to have little time for Prayers of the People that seem to function as little sermons or political statements disguised as prayer to which all members of the congregation must listen. He writes, “[Prayers of petition] are appeals to God and pleas for God’s help. Obviously the need[s] [of the people] must be addressed, and therefore one may assume that God knows what the prayer is about. There is no need for long explanations about the state of the world, and so appeals need not be excessive.” Perhaps all of us can remember a time when we have heard prayers in church become needlessly long-winded, containing too much information, or appear virtually copied from a political party platform. Prayers of petitions are not homilies. Prayers of petition principally cry out to God for help. “It is God who must act,” writes Lohfink. “It is certainly true that we ourselves must also act, but that is not the subject of petitions, which are addressed to God, not to the community.”
After reading Lohfink’s book, I also find myself paying greater attention to the person of the Trinity being addressed in my own prayer or that of my community. Until I read this book, I really did not understand why the Church so often addresses its prayers to God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity. Perhaps I should have known better. Lohfink suggests this is perhaps all too common in our churches today. “Suppose we are standing in front of a church on Sunday morning,” he postulates. “We approach many of those coming out of the church as we can reach and ask them: ‘To whom were you praying during the service?’...I am convinced that a large percentage of those questioned would say: ‘To God of course. Who else?’” Although the church does address prayers to Jesus or the Holy Spirit in addition to God the Father, "[prayer] is always directed in the Holy Spirit, through Christ, to the Father” writes Lohfink. He quotes the ancient Church Council of Hippo of 393 which declared, “Semper ad Patrem dirigatur oratio” (Prayer is always to be directed to the Father). Now, as I sit in my stall before our Offices and the Mass begins, I find myself paying just a little more attention to the prayers and language we use in our liturgies. Like seeing the arrow in a FedEx logo, once you see it, you cannot unsee it.
I highly recommend Lohfin’s new book. It has reminded me that I do not want to settle for just “good enough” prayers. Do I believe that all prayer must adhere perfectly to Lohfink's theological assertions and must abide by the most up-to-date theological directives? No, not at all. I do not want to be one of those ivory tower theologians with nothing better to do than to devise more-perfect prayers. Jesus Christ has already done that in teaching us the “Our Father”. And I know in my heart the best prayers are probably uttered by people like my deceased Baptist grandmother who possessed no degrees in theology yet whose generosity, kindness, and devotion to God and her fellow humans knew no equal.
This I think is the true mark of prayer. Prayer restores us to right relationships with God, each other, ourselves, and our communities. Prayer restores that which lost to us after the Great Fall. In prayer, we unite ourselves to God the Father, through Christ, with the Holy Spirit. In prayer, we are united with the entire communion of saints here and in heaven. With them, we hope one day to praise God forever singing, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah 6:3).
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at email@example.com