Learning to pray isn't instinctive. Lesson one in the process is that you need a coach.
Who teaches you to pray? For Christians, the first answer should be “the Holy Spirit.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, the Holy Spirit is the “interior master of Christian prayer” (#2672), the one who “teaches the children of God how to pray” (#2650).
So far, so good. But my follow-up question might be more difficult to answer: How does the Holy Spirit teach you to pray? What are the usual methods of this “interior master”?
This second question is a tough one precisely because there are many possible correct answers. In this series, though, I will focus on just one answer: the Sacred Scriptures.
The Word of God is one of the normal, ordinary, and effective means by which the Holy Spirit wishes to teach us to pray.
In fact, once one begins to look for it, the Scriptures are so rich in their teaching on prayer that it is quite difficult to decide where to begin. So, for this series, I will focus—somewhat arbitrarily—on the miracles that comprise the core of the Gospel of John, a section known as the “Book of Signs.” Again, one could start anywhere in the Scriptures, but since these miracles were selected by St. John as particularly apt for bringing us to faith in Jesus, they can also offer us some clues on how we can respond to the gift of faith through prayer.
The first sign (John 2:1-11): Get a prayer coach
Pause, for a moment, and consider how strange the first sentence of the second chapter of the Gospel of John would be if you did not know the rest of the story: “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.” How would you react, if you read that sentence without its wider context? “Um, thanks for letting me know she was there. Who was getting married, exactly?” The sentence is even stranger when one realizes that the sacred author waits until the next sentence, almost like an afterthought, to tell us that Jesus and his disciples “were also invited.”
So a wedding is happening and the first detail we’re given is not about the bride and groom (who are never named at all), but about one “random” guest. And then as an afterthought, the Son of God is mentioned.
However, when you know the full story, the sentence no longer appears so strange. It is actually an effective topic sentence. While Jesus works the first of his miracles at this wedding, it is a miracle set in motion by Mary. She notices the shortage of wine, she brings it to the attention of her Son, and she gives the command to the servants (and in a roundabout and respectful way, to Christ as well) to follow her Son’s commands so that the problem might be rectified. The public ministry of Jesus Christ came to us through Mary’s intercession.
If we read this as a commentary on prayer, one clear lesson immediately emerges for us from this first sign: We would do well to let the Blessed Virgin Mary be a part of our prayer life. She has a keen eye for our problems. She has absolute faith that her Son can rectify them. And she is not afraid to ask for His help on our behalf.
The Church has traditional terms and titles for these roles of the Blessed Virgin, such as Mediatrix of All Graces, or Help of Christians. Yet you might also think of her in a more basic, homey way as a “prayer coach.”
Like a good coach, Mary both models prayer for us (“treasuring all these things in her heart”) and she prays on our behalf (“They have no wine.”). Yet, also like a coach, the Blessed Virgin does not entirely play the game for us. Our own prayer, under her guidance, remains vital to our lives as disciples of Christ. As Pope Francis recently wrote in Rejoice and Be Glad, #147: “I do not believe in holiness without prayer.”
I concur with the pope’s statement, and I would add to it: “Nor do I believe in prayer without mentors.”
It is a bit strange, in fact, how so many of us have come to think prayer is something that we have to do completely on our own, without assistance. Such an attitude is philosophically and historically unsound. Humans are born helpless. We need mentors to give us initial guidance in everything we do: Why should prayer be the exception?
It is no surprise, then, to see that throughout the history of the Church, the faithful have routinely availed themselves of “prayer coaches”—whether they be the saints in heaven, or spiritual directors here on earth, or ideally, both!
Achieving human excellence requires the help of mentors, and this first sign in the Gospel of John gives us a solid lead on the best mentor possible.
See the intro to this series here: