In yesterday’s front page of “The Straits Times” there was a big picture of a long L-shaped queue in a hawker centre. The article was entitled, “Star Attraction.” This article was on how the hawker stall owners of the Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and the Crawford Lane Teochew-style pork-and-vinegar noodles have each won a Michelin star award, from the international Michelin Guide team on food.
As a result, Mr Chan, the pork noodle stall award winner owner said that he had to open his stall at around 9.15 am instead of the usual 10.00 am. The first customer came at 8.50 am /and by 1.10 pm, the queue had grown to some 50 people. Many customers had to wait for more than an hour for their food.
If we reflect on this social behaviour, we could also say that in many ways such longing for the taste of good food and the willingness to queue for more than an hour just for the food, does remind us of how we as human beings have great desires to experience the quality of things in life. In other words, the desire to experience quality food in many ways also reveal how as human beings we naturally desire for a quality of life that has deeper relationships, better quality time with our family, greater challenges at work, more refreshing vacations, and a more fulfilling relationship with God in our spiritual life.
While I have no doubts that these Michelin rated food are of great taste, I was never attracted to them because first, these food were far too expensive. But, even as they have now brought Michelin quality food to the affordable level of hawker centres, I would still not be willing to go out of my way to look for them, let alone queue for an hour for them. Many people may say, “Fr Heng, you are so boring”! Well, if that is what it is to be boring, then, so be it because my reason is simple: each of us have different priorities in my life.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is important that we know what our priorities in life are. This is because our priorities in life do give us clear indications of where our heart is and not is. This in turn explains how we spend our energies, money and time in our life. A person who spend more time in in front of a mirror than in prayer, or in a pub with friends than with their spouse reveal much about his or her priorities in life. If we don’t have clear priorities we may end up living a superficial and worse still, confusing and unfulfilling life.
In today’s Gospel, when one of Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciple clearly had his priority right and knew what he wanted out of life. For to know how to pray is to know how to relate to God and develop and deepen the quality of our relationship with Him, whom Jesus reminds us is our Father; our intimate “daddy” who loves us totally and forgives us unconditionally.
If we do not know how to pray meaningfully, it is like not being able to talk meaningfully, deeply and intimately with people; especially those who mean much to us, like our family members. Have we experienced how in the aftermath of a quarrel to our horror we discover that we have actually taken people we love for granted? As such we have not communicated our appreciation to them for the many good things and sacrifices of love that they have shown us? I have on several occasions, during my family Masses reminded my nephews and nieces, never to take their parents for granted, and to love them more wholeheartedly while they are still alive. I reminded them of this because I can see how my sisters and brothers truly love their children so much, as all good parents do.
If our relationship with people is a one-way direction of “receiving and taking” and not one that is giving, or our conversations a monologue, or when the other person wants to reach out and share his or her deeper self with us, but we often find ourselves not truly listening, we can be sure that if this continues indefinitely one day, the quality of the relationship will suffer and even breakdown. This is because strong relationships cannot be built through superficial conversations, as junk food can never hope to win any Michelin star awards.
In short, when Jesus in today’s Gospel taught His disciples how to pray, in the “Our Father” prayer, Jesus was teaching them and today, all of us the essential elements of what good quality prayer needs. Jesus affirmed, that for our prayer to be meaningful, we must first focus our attention on God. Thus, Jesus says, our prayer should begin with God, and more importantly, we need to address Him personally and intimately as “our Father.” Then, whatever happens during the prayer time, happens between a Father and son or daughter relationship as strangers.
Such a basic predisposition in all our prayers is very important. This means that we cannot presume that all our prayers begin with and are focused on God as our Father. This is because if we are not careful, our prayers may end up focusing more on our needs and wants instead of on God, as our Father, Jesus as our brother and Saviour, and the Holy Spirit as our light and inspiration. How often have we found ourselves loving ourselves more than we love God during our prayer? How often have our prayers been more an articulation of a list of petitions instead of a litany of praises and thanksgiving to God?
While it is not wrong to present God our list of needs, let us not forget that quality prayer is about putting God at the centre and relationship with Him, and not putting our needs and concern at the centre and then asking God to fulfil them. And if this is so, then we have become the centre of our prayers and not God our Father and His Will.
Having established that we are a precious child of God our Father during our prayer, Jesus then wishes that we then pray that “God’s Kingdom come . . . and His Will is fulfilled in our daily living.” By this, we are praying that God’s Will and Providence become a reality and that we do not allow the trials, tribulations and temptations of our lives to overwhelm us in our daily living and at the time of our death.
And as Jesus is aware of our weaknesses and sinfulness He makes it essential that we always pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive each one who has sinned against us.” Again, we cannot presume that when we pray, we pray with humility in our hearts, and not pray with a “self-righteousness” as though we are holy and others are sinful. When this happens we can be sure that our prayers are not effective and gets lost on the way to heaven.
Let us also note that the “Our Father” prayer that Jesus teaches us is not only wholesome, but complete as it also begs God to bless us with all our material needs in life. And so, Jesus urges us to pray to His Father, “give us this day our daily bread.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, there is still much to say about prayer, but let me assure you that if God had given me all that I had asked for in my prayers, especially when I was young and foolish, I will never have become a priest and a Jesuit today. And, as I grow older by the day, I have come to realise that the only wise way to pray is to say to God Our Father, “Father, may Your Will be done . . . help me to have the wisdom to always live in Your love and ways . . . and when I fall into sin, forgive me . . . and when I am able to love and serve you, I thank You . . . help me never take Your Love for granted . . . as all I have is Yours . . .” Actually, in short these words express the meaning of the “Our Father” prayer.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, as I conclude, let us remind ourselves that, if we are able to pray and live the “Our Father” Prayer with all our hearts, then without doubts, we will surely experience the promises of Jesus that, “whatever we ask of His Father, will receive; whoever searches, will always find, and whenever we knock, the door will always open for us.”
In other words, for those of us who say, “Our prayers are not answered, we can be sure that we are either not praying wholeheartedly enough by not putting God at the centre of our prayer or as in the second part of today’s Gospel story tells us, we are not persevering hard enough in our prayers, for all our prayers are heard and heeded by God with great love and compassion for us. God Loves us too much to ignore our prayers; He willingly died for our sake and Salvation.
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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