Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
In first part of our Gospel reading, we have a teaching that shows that prayer is a lifestyle. It encompasses three separate actions – asking, seeking, and knocking. There is also a lot of overlap between the three actions. In our western analytical or mathematical minds, we like everything to be clearly defined and separated.
I have heard teaching that clearly lays out what is asking, seeking, and knocking and the differences between. You may have as well. If that has been case, we need to lay that aside and look at it as a way of life.
So, why do we pray? We pray because we believe Jesus. He says that if you ask, then you will receive. St. Cyril of Alexandria explains that this promise has the strength of an oath. It is not that God is false that an oath is used. Rather it is to show that the smallness of our faith is groundless. St. Cyril tells us that it is to confirm the hearers in faith. In our own lives we can recount the many times that God has answered our prayers. It is important to review the answers to prayers frequently because it reminds us of the faithfulness of God to answer.
However, we know that not every prayer is answered. St. James says as much in his epistle. If Jesus, promises to answer our prayers and they aren’t, what is going on?
This gets us more into the seeking and knocking part of prayer and shows us how much prayer is a way of life. Origen tells that if we fail to do the things that aid us in receiving our requests and turn away from the object of our petition, then we aren’t really asking. To ask means to live in such a way that we are pursuing the answer of our request.
St. Basil Great also points out that our conduct and way of life will affect our ability to be heard by God. He writes,
If also any one from indolence surrenders himself to his desires, and betrays himself into the hands of his enemies, God neither assists him nor hears him, because by sin he has alienated himself from God. It becomes then a man to offer whatever belongs to him, but to cry to God to assist him. Now we must ask for the Divine assistance not slackly, nor with a mind wavering to and fro, because such a one will not only not obtain what it seeks, but will the rather provoke God to anger. For if a man standing before a prince has his eye fixed within and without, lest perchance he should be punished, how much more before God ought he to stand watchful and trembling? But if when awakened by sin you are unable to pray steadfastly to the utmost of your power, check yourself, that when you stand before God you may direct your mind to Him.1
If we aren’t careful to live uprightly, then God will not hear us. Growing up, I heard often enough that my family was considered legalistic because we paid more attention to dress and way of life than other families would. Since we often restrict the Christian life to something spiritual or intellectual, this makes perfect sense. How we act in that scenario would have no effect on our prayers.
However, in the sacramental life, we understand that everything that we do has an impact on everything else. We pray through every action that we do. A few months ago, I was asked about baptismal crosses and how they should be worn. One of the things that I learned when I was researching an answer for that is that a baptismal cross is a physical prayer or statement. By wearing our baptismal crosses, we are declaring to the spiritual world that we belong to Christ.
Our lifestyle of prayer isn’t lived intentionally so that others can see us, but it may be evident. Comparing to the baptismal crosses again, they are typically worn under our clothes, but the chain may still be visible. Our life and our choices are to be continually in the function of prayer pursuing God and the lifestyle that pleases him. The choices we make will most likely cause others to ask us questions, but they aren’t done for that purpose. They are done to be pleasing to the Lord.
There is also the question of waiting for an answer to our prayer. The Venerable Bede compares the asking to making the request, seeking to following the lifestyle of prayer, and knocking as the remaining persistent in prayer.
We live in an instant society and expect things to happen immediately. To highlight this, I think that it was this week I saw an article complaining that an announcement had been made a few days before had not yet been implemented. We hear something and expect it to happen by tomorrow or sooner. This journalist is simply a product of our culture.
When I took a trip to an Asian country, I was confronted by a different culture. It was one of waiting in prayer. Whereas I often pray, and the answer doesn’t come in a few days, then I think of it as a non-answer or a no. However, a believer in that country explained that they pray about projects and then seek permission from the government officials. If the request is denied they don’t take it as a no, but rather as something that needs more prayer. They will continue to pray until they have the freedom to go ahead with the project.
These human examples of asking and receiving in the next part of the passage, first of all tell us that God is good in a way that is beyond human goodness, but these requests have also a spiritual connotation. As St. John Chrysostom explains,
But by the fish is signified the belief in invisible things, either from the waters of baptism, or because it is taken out of invisible places which the eye cannot reach. Because also faith, though tossed about by the waves of this world, is not destroyed, it is rightly compared to a fish, in opposition to which he has placed the serpent on account of the poison of deceit, which by evil persuasion had its first seed in the first man. Or, by the egg is understood hope. For the egg is the young not yet formed, but hoped for through cherishing, opposed to which he has placed the scorpion, whose poisoned sting is to be dreaded behind; as the contrary to hope is to lookback, since the hope of the future reaches forward to those things which are before.2
To sum up, the specific requests are for hope and belief or faith. Finally because we have confidence from our prayers being answered, and the nature of even humans giving what is asked, we can be certain that the Holy Spirit will be given to us.
In the prayer rule that I use, I frequently ask that God would not take His Holy Spirit from me. From this passage we have the confidence that God will hear and answer this prayer.
As you go from reading this, make an effort first of all to present your requests to the Lord. We have his promise that He will answer us.
Second, let us look to our lives. Are we living in such a way that would say that we are pursuing that answer to prayer? Furthermore, in a more general sense are we living in a way that we can be received into the presence of Christ? St. Basil the Great tells us that if we are not living in such a way from weakness rather than from indifference or apathy, God will pardon us. Our intentions must be holy and pure, even if we do not have the strength to be fully pure yet.
Third, we must pray and never give up. We must remember the widow who sought justice from the unjust judge and the friend who knocked on his neighbour’s door. We must ask and remain faithful in asking until we receive an answer from the Lord.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit