O Lord, who hast mercy upon all, take away from me my sins, and mercifully kindle in me the fire of thy Holy Spirit. Take away from me the heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh, a heart to love and adore Thee, a heart to delight in Thee, to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ's sake, Amen.
St. Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-397)
Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.) that the most important part, which many people unfortunately leave out is that word "living." He wanted to remind the Church that the God whom he knows and loves is a living God! In a lecture at Harvard, he addressed the question "is God dead?" Part of his response was to attack the idea of a God primarily interested in religion and piety. No, if you wanted to know God, you must know Jesus Christ to be the Son of the Living God: "In God there is no unchristlikeness at all."
Part of the point here is that without Jesus, the Son of the Living God, we must be rather sheepish, being sinners, about things like prayer. But, we Christians do not relate to a God who is a mere logical necessity or justice dealer, but to the Lord Jesus! It is a terrible tragedy that any Christian, knowing himself to be a sinner, would feel strange about the life of prayer. Instead, we must cry out to Jesus for mercy, like all the beggars and ne'er-do-wells we read about in the Gospels. I've spoken to a number of people lately who imagine themselves as grown-ups seeking out a deity with no interest in them whatsoever. This is not Christian prayer. "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
What must we do, then?
The first thing to do is beg for mercy from the one who is abundant in it! Prayer must always begin, yes, with a recognition of our own unworthiness, apart from the grace of the Lord, to pray as the Psalmist: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1 RSV)
Next, we must ask to be full of the Holy Spirit as we pray. "Pray in the Holy Spirit," Jude tells us. It is the indwelling presence of God through the Holy Spirit that truly enables the life of prayer. Each Christian becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, they themselves becoming the place where prayer is valid and heard. The Apostle Paul says in Romans "you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God." (Rom. 8:15-16) All this is to say that when we feel ourselves to be unworthy to pray, or to sinful to pray, the Spirit intercedes and bears witness to our true identity!
Next, we have to ask the Lord for a lightness of heart, for a gentleness that befits our status as children of God, who love and adore Him. We often come to the Lord in prayer with heavy hearts, wearied and burdened by the cares of this world, but also closed off, even in part, to the delight of being objects of Divine Love. In short, we should go to prayer - whether it's liturgical or private - with great joy, as our hearts commune with the One who made them. In the words of Saint Francis de Sales: "A heart speaks to a heart, lips speak only to ears."
This time of Lent is a time to focus our hearts upon the living God, revealed to us in the Lord Jesus Christ, indwelling us by His Holy Spirit. May the Lord relieve us of the weight of our sins, and doing so, hear the prayers of our hearts!