When the church concludes its official prayers with the words, Through Christ our Lord, it is not just repeating a formula or letting the faithful know that the prayer has come to an end. The church means it – theologically. Whether we state it explicitly or not, all our prayers are made through Christ and in him and with him. If they are not, they are abstract prayers, and not Christian prayers at all. Christian prayer assumes the communication between the Son and the Father, and, implicitly, at least, moves into the relationship. Christian prayer does not tie itself down to the consideration of episodes in our Lord’s life and to the mysteries of the gospel. Christian prayer may even, in the act of contemplation for instance, discourage the use of meditative forms which recall scenes and promote speculation. But for a Christian to imagine that there could be communication between the soul and the Father apart from the meditation of the Son would be unorthodox: would be to miss the significance of the incarnation. No man comes to the Father, said our Lord, but through me. I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
In praying to the Father Jesus had no need to pray through anyone’s intercession or on the strength of anyone’s prayer. Since he was God he was at all times united with the Father and acting in perfect harmony with the Spirit. His prayer emerged accordingly. He needed no impulse of grace in order to pray: he was grace. We on the other hand need grace at every moment of our lives, and our prayer depends on it. Without me you can do nothing. Without him we cannot even begin to pray. His prayer is our attraction to prayer, and its substance when once we have begun. We have no inspiration of our own. No one can say, “Jesus is the Lord,” Saint Paul reminds the Corinthians, except in the Holy Spirit.
What of the prayers of non-Christians, and of the souls of the Old Testament? Though non-Christians certainly pray, and seem to have done so since the earliest ages of man, they nevertheless need the grace of the Spirit. In the same way the prayers and sacrifices of the Old Law glorified God at the inspiration and by the power of the Spirit. It can be said that in unconscious anticipation of, and in virtue of, Christ’s prayer and sacrifice, the worship offered by the Hebrew people was made pleasing to the Father. When Jesus came and prayed, he took up the prayer of all mankind and of every generation, and gave it a place in his own. Thus the stuttering, distracted, inadequate praises of groping humanity become, in the alchemy of grace, divine.
In an airport a small boy is playing with a toy airplane. He makes the appropriate sounds: the shrill squeal, the roar of the engine, the bumping along the runway, the even humming after the take-off. After actual boarding, the noises of the jet which he has been imitating take over, catching up the child’s voice into the authentic vibrations. The analogy is far from exact because prayer, however elementary, is never a matter of make-believe; it is nevertheless an imperfect and amateurish rendering of the real thing. The real thing is what carries us into the sky.
So in prayer our operation is secondary; the primary operation is God’s – and our cooperation with it.