One of the questions that anyone who seeks to enter a seminary or religious institute or order is bound to be asked is how they pray, and what they pray. It is important, after all, to establish what a person's relationship with God is like -- and one way of doing this in the first instance is to ask that person how they pray.
There are of course many different ways of praying, and many forms of expression of the same words and ideas. And although communication with God is good, there is a danger that prayer can sometimes be reduced to the trivial or nonsensical.
One such picture of nonsense or lack of meaning is can be compared to something that happens towards the end of Alice in Wonderland: when Alice is in court at the trial, she exclaims to many of the people there that they are nothing but a pack of cards. And then the cards rise up and fall down around her, and she wakes up to realize that it was all a dream.
We hope in turn that our prayer does not become like that. In other words, we hope that when someone hears us pray, they will not exclaim that what we are saying is just 'a set of words'.
Of course, much prayer is indeed framed in words, but we have to guard that our prayer does not descend to meaningless repetition of words, does not sink to saying things without some thought or reflection about what it is we are saying. Because once we realize this, our prayers, just like the cards in Alice in Wonderland, will fall to the ground, and become meaningless objects to us.
Today's gospel is an example of when prayer can come close to meaningless. The Pharisee may indeed have meant what he was saying, but were he to have thought more closely about the implications of what he was saying, he could with luck have realized that he was not making much sense.
And this is a timely reminder to us when we pray. Even though we may not fall into the trap of meaningless or mindless repetition of words when we pray, there are occasions when perhaps we put less thought or effort into our communications with God than we ought.
Fortunately for us who have got this far, the remedy is a simple one. We can ask God to help us pray as we ought, and then we know that everything will be taken care of.
We may not feel that we are then praying as we ought or can, we may not feel anything out of the ordinary, but it is a first step in the right direction, a first or further step into entering into a more meaningful dialogue with God our Creator on whom we depend for everything. Such a dialogue forms part of the relationship that we share with God, and is fundamental to our whole being.
If we can just let this most fundamental relationship with God occupy first place in our lives, then whatever we do and say in prayer, or however we pray, will never be meaningless like the Pharisee's prayer, nor will it ever be a meaningless set or pack of words. Instead, real communication will occur, and it will take us further in our relationship with God, and so flow out into our own lives and the lives of those whom we encounter.