The Ladder of Prayer

Douglas P. McManaman
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 30, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

The readings today as well as the readings for last Sunday have to do with the importance and power of persistent prayer. The Catechism speaks of five different kinds of prayer: the prayer of petition, the prayer of thanksgiving, prayer of intercession, prayer of praise and prayer of adoration. These different kinds are all interconnected, like steps on a ladder. In this gospel, Jesus tells us to take the first step on that ladder, the prayer of petition. He says: "Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds". And he tells us to persist, because the results of our prayers are not always immediate.

I think the reason so many people do not pray is that many don't really believe that prayer works, and so they don't attempt it; or, they do not persist, because the results are not immediate. In my experience, it is only when things get desperate, when they hit rock bottom, that many people will attempt to pray for the first time in a long time. But that's the first step. The prayer of petition. And when we petition God, we really do discover that He answers prayer. It is at this point, however, that a person can proceed in one of two possible directions. If they are thankful, they will continue to pray out of gratitude; if they lack a spirit of gratitude - which many people do - , they take what God gives them and soon forget about Him, like the spoiled child or the young adult with a sense of entitlement.

But gratitude leads to the prayer of thanksgiving, the next step on the ladder. A person just offers prayers of thanks to God and seeks ways to love Him back, and after a time, that leads to a deeper sense of God's presence in one's life. And that increasing sense of God's presence and love of God leads to an increase in love of neighbour. The reason is that when we pray, we ascend to God and enter into the heart of God, and there in the heart of God we discover our neighbour, and so we begin to intercede for that neighbour; we begin to pray for others, as Abraham was doing in the first reading. That's the prayer of intercession. And the more one intercedes for others, again the more one sees that God does indeed answer prayer. A good and recent example of the power of intercessory prayer is from movie Unplanned. Recently I met parishioners at the theatre in Vaughan were this movie was playing. Unplanned is the story of Abbey Johnson, who was the director of a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Texas; the story covers how she became involved in the abortion industry and what led her out. Her mother and father and brother were constantly praying for her, that she would leave that work, and she finally did. But the highlight of the film for me was the scene where, after walking away from the clinic for the last time, she actually tells Shawn Carney, who was the leader of Coalition for Life and who prayed often outside the clinic, that on those days when his group were praying outside the clinic, the "no shows" would jump to 75%, every time. She was assuring him that those prayers work, that the evidence was plain when she was the director of the clinic. So she encouraged him to continue to pray outside the clinic, and she eventually joined him.

But again, these kinds of things lead to a greater spirit of gratitude, which in turn makes one's prayer of thanksgiving more intense. This leads to a deeper sense of the goodness and love of God, and so one begins to move into the prayer of praise. We always praise what we see as good, if we see a beautiful work of art, we praise it. When we grow in a sense of God's goodness as a result of a consistent prayer life, our prayer becomes one of praise. We praise God. And praise eventually leads to the prayer of adoration, the highest kind of prayer. This is the kind of prayer that Mother Theresa was referring to when news anchor Dan Rather asked her what she says when she prays. Mother Theresa said: I say nothing, I just listen. What does God say to you, then?" he asked. "He says nothing, He just listens". That's all that's needed at this point: silent presence. I believe it was Fulton Sheen who said when you pray, say nothing often.

When I think of this kind of prayer, I often think of the time I went to visit a parishioner who had a stroke. As I approached her room in the hospital, I slowed down and just peaked in, and there was her husband, just sitting there next to the bed, saying nothing, just staring into space, and there was Marley, his wife, sitting up in bed, also saying nothing, staring into space. There was something beautiful about that image, so I stood there at the door and just looked at them for about a half a minute, then I went in. I was really touched by that sight. And I thought to myself: there's a good analogy that illustrates the prayer of adoration. They've been married so long they don't need words. They're just there, in one another's presence, and that's good enough.

When we've been immersed in a life of prayer for so long, prayer of adoration becomes a real possibility, just as when we have a long and tested friendship, it's enough to be in one another's presence; lots of words are not necessary. People at that stage want to spend more and more time before the Blessed Sacrament in silent adoration every day. But the first step on this ladder is the persistent prayer of petition, which leads to the prayer of thanksgiving, which leads to the prayer of intercession, which in turn leads to a deeper prayer of thanksgiving, which gives way to the prayer of praise and then silent adoration. At that point a person has an interior life, and that's when anxiety begins to subside. One is no longer striving to create one's own personal kingdom of God on earth - as so many people do - , in the exclusive enjoyment of the goods of this world. One has discovered the kingdom of God within. As Jesus says in Luke, the kingdom of God is within you. One has found one's peace of mind within.