In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us something important about prayer. There are different ways to pray: you can pray out loud with words – vocal prayer – you can pray quietly in your heart but still with words: prayers of petition, asking God for help, for grace, etc. There is another kind of prayer that every Christian is invited to discover: prayer in the Spirit. Some people call it mental prayer, others call it contemplative prayer, but it is more deeply understood as the core of the Christian life. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “When you pray, go into your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” What is the inner room Jesus is talking about? What does He mean when He says, “close the door?” How do you pray to the Father? What does He mean by, “in secret?”
Wherever you go, there you are. Your body is always somewhere, so you are always somewhere. This week your body is at camp, so you are at camp – even if sometimes you daydream or let your mind wander. Your inner room is a place inside of you that you visit throughout the day. It is where you make decisions when you stop to think. It is where you go when you try to understand something. It is where you find yourself when you’re really listening to someone. That’s actually a good way to think about where your inner room is: when you listen to someone with your head – with your brain – you’re thinking more about what you are going to say next or how you are going to respond, or about something else entirely. When you really want to listen well, you have to listen with your heart NOT your head, you have to literally take a seat within yourself – the seat of your heart – and open yourself to someone else. Next time you’re listening to someone, check yourself: are you in your head thinking lots of things, or are you in your heart just welcoming the other person. When you pray, go to your inner room, the place where you can best listen to someone, your heart.
What does it mean to close the door once you’re there? It is very simple, it means to get rid of all the distractions – all the ways your five senses can pull you out of your inner room. When you pray in the Spirit, you go to a quiet place, where you can be alone, you close your eyes, you stop eating or drinking, you breathe fresh air slowly. You watch your breathing carefully, it reminds you to be in your heart and not in your head. The word for spirit is the same word for breath, so as you pray in the Spirit, you pray from your heart with the breath of life that God Himself breathed into you.
It is the Spirit who teaches us to say, “Abba Father,” with groans that cannot be put into a human language. Prayer in the Spirit is the life of the Trinity lived out in our inner room. When we make ourselves available to this prayer, it is the Spirit Himself who prays within us. Jesus united Himself to us when we were baptised, so our hearts and His heart are in the same place by grace – when we enter our inner room – our heart – by the grace of Christ we are also in His Heart. Jesus loves us with the same love that He has for His Father, and so He reveals the Father to us and directs our hearts to Him. The Spirit lifts our hearts in a burning and liberating act of love to the Father. Freedom in the Spirit is something we can experience from this kind of prayer. Our hearts are on fire with God’s own Love, the Son’s love for His Father – we gain knowledge of who we are: beloved sons and daughters – and we get a taste of heaven. We know from then on, that nothing else in this world could possibly satisfy us, and so we experience this new kind of freedom: freedom in the Spirit. If you want to experience this kind of freedom, learn to pray as Jesus Himself prayed and taught us, beg the Holy Spirit to guide your love and inflame your heart. The Lord comes to those who are poor in spirit, desperate for His love, unsatisfied with anything this world has to offer, and who call out to Him day and night.
While pretending to pray to God, the hypocrites are looking around for human praise. The elaborate garb they wear is laughable, and hardly that of a sincere supplicant. One who is earnestly offering a supplication looks exclusively to the One who has the power to grant the request and lets all other claims recede. But if you leave behind the one you are petitioning and immediately go wandering about looking everywhere for others’ approval, you will depart with empty hands.1
Do you want to know how precious prayer is? No act of outward justice is compared with incense: only prayer is. As is shown in the Revelation of John, the great angel proceeds before the visage of the altar, holding in his hand a censer of the fragrances of incense, and it is said to him, “These are the prayers of the holy ones.”2
Christ too knocks at the door of the Christian, entering the heart either through the divine Scriptures or good thoughts. The one who receives them opens oneself to Christ. The one who sends them away shuts the door. For this reason Jesus orders that the soul enter the inward understanding when it prays, so that it thinks of nothing except for what it prays and to whom it prays. Thus it closes the doorway of its bodily sense, so that it may shut outside all external thoughts and cares.3
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 19.2. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 127). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 13.5. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 127). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 13. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 128). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.