Pouring out our hearts: sermon on the fifth Sunday after Easter

“If you will ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it you.”

When I read our Lord’s words at the Last Supper, I am struck by how little He is thinking of Himself. Here He is, about to die a terrible death, and yet it is mostly of the apostles’ sadness and necessities that He speaks. Now, one of the things that He knows that they will need when He is gone is confidence in prayer. Until this point, His own presence among them has surely inspired them to pray with fervour. But once He has been withdrawn from their eyes by the Ascension, will the disciples perhaps fall back into the normal condition of mankind, of praying only with doubtful and uncertain hearts?

For is that not man’s natural state? Never to pray at all is something rare. There is an instinct in the human heart to turn to God and ask for help, and most people probably follow this instinct at least at some points in their lives. But the person who is living only on the level of nature does not pray with confidence. He is inclined to think, “Does God hear my prayer? Does He really care?” And weighed down perhaps by the memory of past sins, he says, “Well, God doesn’t answer the prayers of people like me.”

Our Lord wanted to take even the beginnings of such thoughts out of the hearts of His disciples. And so He says, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, if you ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it you.” Then, as if His simple word were not enough reassure us, He adds another motive, “The Father himself loveth you.” How can the disciples be sure of that? “Because”, He says, “you have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God.” The simple fact that we believe in His Son is a motive for the Father to love us. So, even if a Christian has fallen into some sin, he shouldn’t imagine that God is indifferent to his prayers. No, Christ says, “Come to me all you who are burdened.” And that includes, it perhaps especially includes, all those who are burdened by their own consciences. If they pray humbly to be freed of their burden, God will hear them.

To pray like this, with confidence, is the privilege of the Christian. As St Paul says, through Christ “we have boldness and confidence of access” to God (Eph 3:12). But are some things that we can do to grow in this confidence? Yes: our Lord says elsewhere, “When you shall stand to pray, forgive, if you have aught against any man.” Resentment for wrongs done to us puts, as it were, a mist between ourselves and God. Even though our heavenly Father is still close, we lose our confidence that He hears.

The other thing we can practice, as well as forgiveness, is frankness. Commenting on a verse in the psalm, “In his sight I pour out my prayer, and before him I declare my trouble”, the Catechism of the Council of Trent draws our attention to that word “pour”. “This word means that the person who starts to pray keeps nothing back, and hides nothing, but pours it all out into the bosom of God His most loving Parent.”

I think this is why the saints were able to pray for so long. We can sometimes be amazed when we read their lives, and see how St Francis, for example, spent a whole night in repeating the words, “My God and my all”, or how St Dominic would spend hours at night kneeling and then standing, speaking a few words from Scripture, either out loud or in his heart, stretching out his hands to heaven like an arrow or else stretching them out on either side, like one being crucified. They were able to do this because they were pouring out their hearts before God. They knew that they were in His presence, and they loved to be there.

We are very far from these great saints; but we also have the Holy Spirit within us — or if we do not, we can hurry to the sacrament of confession. And as with anything else, from playing the violin to cooking, we get better at prayer by praying. Renew then your resolve to pray, and God will enable you to fulfil it.