Matthew 6:7-15, Thursday of Week 11 in Ordinary Time Matthew11:25-30, Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
We are invited into Jesus’ own ‘private room’. But inside are, what I call, the three inner rooms which Jesus hinted at when he taught his disciples the ‘Our Father’. He said, “In praying, do not babble like the pagans… Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” We come to this first inner room where ‘saying or babbling prayers’ should be the least of all concerns for someone who wishes to enter into prayer. This inner room is a place pervaded by silence. In Psalm 139:4, we hear the psalmist say, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” Jesus hints at a place where there is intimacy and close union with his Abba, his Father. So intimate a union that silence surpasses words. The existence of an unspoken relationship must first be there before prayer can happen. The first part of the Lord’s prayer shows us, precisely, that prayer is a relationship with the Other, the Beloved. Tell me how one prays and I will tell you what kind of relationship that person has with God. In all kinds of relationships, we always consider how and what we think about or feel toward a beloved. This may include all the human ways and behaviours, including nonverbals which, according to experts, comprise nearly 80% of all communication. We are communicating or trying to connect to something as basic as a desire or yearning to get to know someone more.
We ask Jesus just what kind of relationship with his Father does he first demonstrate to his disciples and which he would like us to have? On one occasion, Jesus spoke about such kind of nearness to God by quoting from the Torah, “Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). In a nutshell, Jesus is implying that we cultivate a very close relationship with his Father and we are not even obliged to tell anyone about and let it stay as a secret between you and God.
How close? As close as an unborn child is inside the womb of its mother. We are brought back, nostalgic, to this place where we were first formed and the place too where once we were in total adoration and reverence toward God who made himself known as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. Imagine when Jesus was teaching his disciples to approach prayer as one’s personal business with God, meeting him in secret. Nowadays, it seems it is so hard, a luxury even, to find a place to do just that. We go into seclusion in a retreat house, among others. I have heard about some people who find solace being inside the comfort room of their house so they can pray in private. Before we were born, we were once cocooned for nine months in the womb of our earthly mothers. It used to be the most private place on earth until the ultrasound machine was invented. Technology has already infringed on our privacy so early on in our development. On several occasions, Jesus would withdraw to a secluded place, on a mountain away from crowds and from distractions, to get in touch with interior silence. No wonder this is a universally shared experience of the different faith traditions. There is this quote from the great novelist and philosopher Franz Kafka, who said, “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait. You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” This is Jesus’ first inner room.
When an infant is born and the umbilical cord is cut, the basic newborn reflexes of sucking and rooting kick in. A healthy newborn needs these reflexes and they must be involuntary for survival. When the newborn is attached to the breast, it will suck quickly (around two sucks per second) without waiting first to get hungry. Surprisingly, this is where Jesus would like us to be in prayer—that place where we will be fed. According to a scholar, “In medieval devotions…milk and blood are often interchangeable, as are Christ’s breasts and the wound in his side… Christ the savior… feeds the individual soul with his own blood [like] in the image of the nursing mother whose milk is her blood, offered to the child.” (Caroline Walker Bynum)
We go back to our point of reference in the Lord’s prayer. In the Our Father, Jesus invites us to be trusting like a newborn that knows by instinct it will not be left hungry by its own mother. To bridge the separation, the baby is given back to rest on the mother’s breast to get skin-to-skin contact. It is an essential body language. The newborn gets nourishment and tender affection through this physical connection in order to adapt to its new environment. Before we were born, we were already in God’s mind and afterwards, we continued to be united bodily. Even before we can say “Give us this day our daily bread,” the Father knows best about all the provisions that we need.
The third inner room in Jesus’s prayer life and the last part of the Lord’s prayer talks about forgiveness and about earthly fears of being overcome by the spiritual enemy. “… Forgive us our trespasses… lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Forgiveness, one’s sinfulness and human fears are all matters of the heart. Within the inner room of the heart is exactly where Jesus would like us to be in prayer. There is only one who truly knows God’s heart and that is Jesus. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear about the height, the depth, the breadth of the love of God (Rom 8:38-39) in Christ Jesus. And John’s prologue too, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart who has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Jesus asks for forgiveness despite his being sin-less. It shows that sinful or not we need the Father’s self-gift. The Lord’s prayer leads us to ask for God himself, not for consolations but the source of consolations. We can feel God more through his mercy and forgiveness right from His heart. “The Lord set his heart on you and chose you” (Deut 7:7). A God who seeks us out, a God who not only loves us but likes us and has feelings toward us. We say we are forgiven, but it must move to our heart and be convinced that He is no longer angry with what we have done. We bring God to others too everytime we show compassion. Jesus was able to go through his passion because he felt his Father’s nearness to him. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” But he shows compassion most of all to those who do not feel his Father’s presence.
The ‘Our Father’ is a simple prayer but this is Jesus’s most personal prayer. He finds his Father’s love in everything and, most especially, in the three private rooms in his prayer life: first, private room of interior silence, second, God’s breast and cradling arms, and third, God’s divine heart, the Sacred Heart of the Son that is forever aflame with love. Amen.
*Image is “Three Rooms” painting by Paul Nash