Human beings are creatures of habit, often unconscious habit. If we do anything repeatedly, we will begin to do it in the same way, time after time. Our prayers can also assume a familiar pattern.
Most of Jesus’ prayers were spontaneous prayers, appropriate to the moment. But Jesus also made full use of his Jewish heritage and prayed the psalms. At the end of the Last Supper, “when they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mark 14:26). This “hymn” was almost certainly Psalms 113-118, which were recited at great feasts and were used to close the Passover meal. Jesus prayed at least portions of two psalms from the cross (see Mark 15:34 and Psalm 22:1; Luke 23:46 and Psalm 31:5). Both traditional prayers and spontaneous prayers had a place in Jesus’ prayer life, and they have a place in the prayer life of his followers as well.
Sometimes Jesus’ prayers were prayers of praise and jubilation, as when the disciples came back victorious from their mission (see Luke 10:21). At other times his prayers were prayers of sorrow and anguish, as in Gethsemane (see Luke 22:39-46). In the same way, our prayers will sometimes be prayers of praise and rejoicing. We have many scriptural models for such prayers: the many psalms of praise (see Psalm 150, for example) or the prayers of praise found in the book of Revelation (see 5:9-14, for example). At other times our prayers will be more somber: we will come before God, asking for his forgiveness in the mood of Psalm 51; we will search our ways in the sight of God, asking for his mercy in the manner of Psalm 25.
Jesus prayed that his Father might guide him, that he might act in perfect accordance with God's will. Before Jesus chose twelve of his followers to be his special apostles, he spent a whole night in prayer (see Luke 6:12-13). Sometimes Jesus' prayer was a prayer of thanksgiving (see Luke 10:21). In the same way, our prayers should include seeking God’s guidance and giving thanks for all that our Father has done for us.
Jesus also interceded for others, particularly his close followers. He turned to his Father for the power to heal the sick and raise the dead (see Mark 7:34; John 11:41). He interceded for his disciples, those his Father had given into his care, that they would be kept safe after he returned to his Father (see John 17:15). He prayed for Peter, that his faith would not fail under Satan’s assaults (see Luke 22:31-32). We likewise are called to intercede for those whom we are responsible for, for our family, for our close friends. As we pray for those we love, the example of Jesus should be before us.
Prayer in Solitude
Jesus often went off by himself to pray, arising in the morning before the disciples or going to some solitary place. This setting for prayer is most conducive to reflecting on the mystery of God’s plan unfolding in our lives, just as Mary pondered in her heart the events surrounding the birth of her Son, Jesus (see Luke 2:51). Jesus likewise made use of prayer in solitude to ponder his mission on earth. Thus, after Jesus heard of the death of his forerunner, John the Baptizer, he “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (Matthew 14:13), presumably so that he could have the privacy to enter into prayerful communion with his Father. John’s death signaled the end of a preparation stage; now Jesus wanted to be alone with his Father so that he could contemplate what lay before him.
The same type of prayer is necessary for us. Being a Christian is not a matter of obeying a certain set of rules that we can memorize and follow without need for further direction. Being a Christian primarily means entering into a personal relationship with God. Sustaining and nourishing that relationship requires personal contact with God. We must ponder in our hearts the mystery of his presence in our lives and discern his will for us. Such prayer is different from exuberant jubilation or loving intercession. Peaceful reflection on the mysteries of our faith is necessary for our growth in faith.
Prayer with Others
Jesus taught his followers, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Jesus was warning against public ostentation in prayer, but he was not teaching that our prayer should be exclusively private. Jesus himself went aside to pray, but he also prayed with the apostles and in their presence. It was because the apostles saw Jesus praying that they asked him to teach them how to pray (see Luke 11:1). During the Last Supper, Jesus led the apostles in the prayers and psalms of the Passover, adding his own words to the prayers of thanksgiving over the bread and wine (see Mark 14:26). Thus, for Jesus, prayer was to be done not only in one’s closet in solitude but also with others.
Jesus chose three apostles—Peter, James, and John—to join him in special times of prayer. They were with him when he was transfigured during prayer: “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:28-29). Jesus asked Peter and James and John to be near him during his most intense and personal prayer recorded in the Gospels: his agony in Gethsemane before his crucifixion.
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed. (Mark 14:32-35)
The cup that Jesus had to drink was a cup that he alone could empty. Even so, Jesus’ most private moment of prayer was also a moment when he wanted the support of his followers.
Jesus likewise invited us to support each other in prayer. He promised his special presence when we gather in his name to pray; he promised a special power to our prayers when we come together to present our needs to his Father: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:19-20).
There is therefore a communal, as well as a private, dimension to our prayer. The union between our Father and us that prayer nourishes also involves the other children of the same Father. It is fitting that we join with each other in prayer in the variety of ways that we can pray with others. Sometimes we pray as a part of a large worshiping congregation; sometimes we pray with just one other person—a spouse or close friend. Sometimes shared prayer in small groups can help us as we seek to praise our Father and grow in his life.
It is noteworthy that the prayer that Jesus taught his followers is a collective, not an individual, prayer. We do not pray, “My Father . . . give me this day my daily bread.” We say, “Our Father . . . give us this day our daily bread. . . . Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive. . . . Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” To be a son or daughter of the Father is to be a brother or sister with Jesus and with each other.
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition copyright © 1993 and 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.