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Sharing the Prayer Life of Jesus: An Interview with Shane Kapler

August 5, 2014


Most of us know the Our Father prayer, which Jesus taught to his disciples. But what else can we learn from Jesus about prayer? Today Jared Zimmerer interviews Shane Kapler, author of a new book titled “Through, With, and In Him: The Prayer Life of Jesus and How to Make It Our Own.”

Jared: In your book, Through, With, and In Him: The Prayer Life of Jesus and How to Make It Our Own, you dive into the main prayer of the Jewish Faith, the Shema. What is the Shema and why is it so important for understanding Christ’s early life? 

The Shema is Judaism’s Creed, composed of three passages of Scripture (Deut. 6:4–9, 11:13–21; Num. 15:37–41). It was, and is, recited at the beginning and end of each day. There in the cave of the nativity, it would have been one of the first things our newborn Savior heard, as Joseph intoned it before he and Mary drifted off to sleep. We Christians are familiar with its beginning, because Jesus identified it as the greatest of the Law’s 613 commandments (Mk. 12:29-30): “Hear [Shema in Hebrew], O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” 

Creed is very important to us Christians too. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed that we pray at Mass is the completion of the Shema. The Shema’s confession of God’s oneness is completed by Christ’s revelation of the Trinity. 

I like to say that the Sign of the Cross, with which we begin and end all our times of prayer, is the Christian Shema. It is the Creed in miniature. Each time we make the Sign of the Cross, we proclaim that through Christ’s Cross we enter into the inner life of the one God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and we have been empowered to do so with all our mind (touch forehead), all our heart (touch chest), and all our strength (touch both shoulders). That is the Gospel, the Good News. The way that the Holy Spirit orchestrated all of this is mind-blowing! 

Jared: In the third chapter, ‘In the Home and Synagogue’, you jump into the Jewish ideals of sanctification in everyday experiences. How is this expressed in the life of Christ and in the teachings of the Catholic Faith? 

In the first century, a Jewish person’s day was filled with berakah, praise and thanksgiving. St. Paul invited the Gentiles who had come to believe in Christ to do the same – “pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:17-18). That was how our Lord prayed when he was on earth. When Jesus opened his eyes in the morning he prayed as the Blessed Mother had taught him, “Blessed be the Lord who removes the bands of sleep from our eyes.” When he rose from his sleeping mat he prayed, “Blessed is the Lord who raises those who were stooped.” Even using the restroom was an occasion for blessing, “Blessed be the Lord who opens the aqueducts of the body”! 

The Jewish people had also adopted the practice of stopping three times a day to pray the Eighteen Benedictions, a beautiful tapestry of blessing and petition. This was how Jews living outside Jerusalem united themselves to the Temple liturgy. Sacrifice, after all, was the heart of Israel’s worship; and it could only be legitimately offered in the Temple. All Jews stopped to pray at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. They turned toward Jerusalem as the daily offering (a lamb, bread, and wine) were placed upon the Temple’s altar. They did the same at sunset when any remaining scraps were burned on the altar and the Temple gate closed for the evening. 

Jesus, of course, brings all of this to a new level of fulfillment in the life of the Church (Mt. 5:17). The Our Father, the all-encompassing prayer taught to us by Christ, completes the Eighteen Benedictions. In the Angelus, we join Mary and Jesus in their three times of daily prayer. When we make a daily offering we unite all we will say, do, and think in the coming day to Jesus’ sacrifice, made present in the Eucharist. The Liturgy of the Hours, with its seven “hours” of prayer, is the way the Church extends the Eucharistic Liturgy throughout the entire day. 

Berakah is the element I most need to grow in; and I have a feeling I’m not alone. We need to take a lesson from St. Paul and our Jewish brothers and sisters, and become better at recognizing and praising God’s generosity in even the smallest details of our lives. (Ironically, when I start to blessing God for the gifts he gives, I begin to appreciate how truly, truly blessed I am.) 

Jared: Were there obvious tones of prayer during the Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord? 

There is so much I’d like to say here, but I know space is limited. Let me focus on two “tones”: suffering and thanksgiving. We don’t usually think of these two things going together; but they did in our Lord’s mind. The three psalms that Jesus prayed as he hung upon the Cross – Psalms 22, 31, and 69 – were connected with the todah (Hebrew for “thanksgiving”). The todah was the sacrifice a person offered in the Temple after he had been saved from calamity. Each of these psalms begin in lamentation, but end with the sufferer praising God, as he looked ahead in faith to God’s deliverance. 

The todah sacrifice associated with these psalms is especially easy to spot Psalm 22. “From thee comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied” (Ps. 22:25-26). In the todah, you see, one part of the sacrificial animal was offered upon the altar in the Temple, while another part was consumed in a sacred meal by the offerer and his family and friends. The meal always began with a blessing over unleavened bread and wine, and eating it expressed the communion established between God and all those present. Amazingly, the Jewish rabbis had taught that all sacrifices, with the exception of the todah, would cease when the Messianic Age dawned. We Christians immediately see the connection between the todah and the Eucharist. 

Eucharist is Greek for “thanksgiving.” It is where Jesus’ offering to the Father upon the Cross is made present to us, and our communion with the Father is established in our reception of Christ’s flesh and blood. (That’s why we call it Holy Communion!) Even in the midst of Jesus’ horrific suffering upon the Cross, in his praying of Psalms 22, 31, and 69, our Lord looked ahead to the moment when he and the Church would celebrate his deliverance from death in the Eucharist. And what did he do immediately after being raised? He celebrated his todah, the Eucharist, with the two disciples at Emmaus! And he has been celebrating it with his Church ever since! 

Jared: Aside from the Lord’s Prayer in what ways does Christ teach us to pray? 

Oh man, where to begin! In Jesus’ going out into the desert or up on the mountains to pray, we are shown how, beside communal prayer, our souls desperately need private time with God. Our Lord’s fasting and prayer in the desert tell us that acts of penance and reparation should be a part of our spiritual lives too. Jesus’ speaking with Moses and Elijah in the transfiguration points us toward praying with the communion of saints. The transfiguration is also an endorsement of lectio divina – using God’s written word (the Law, represented by Moses, and the prophets, represented by Elijah) as a means of hearing God’s voice and responding to him. It takes a book to even begin doing justice to this question! 

Jared: What advice would you give to someone who desires the daily habits of a more prayerful life? 

Start making use of the treasure you already possess. Throw yourself into Sunday Mass. Grow in your understanding of its various elements, and how the Mass came to us from the prayer of Jesus himself. Schedule three short times of prayer into your day; you can even associate them with different tasks: 1) when you are getting ready in the morning or during your commute to work; 2) on your way home in the afternoon; and 3) as you are settling into bed for the night. If you pray for just three to ten minutes, three different times a day, I think you will be amazed at how often you will find yourself spontaneously talking to God throughout the day. I bet those three fixed times start becoming longer too. 

The Church’s first catechism, the Didache (70 – 120 A.D.), told believers to pray the Our Fatherthree times a day. You and I are not going to improve on the prayer Jesus taught us! Pray it slowly and deliberately, with different people and situations in mind for each of the petitions. You can also use it as a template, stopping after each phrase to elaborate on it. “Our Father who art in heaven … thank you for making me your child! I cannot believe the love you have shown to me, to all of us.” When you pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” go ahead and mention the needs you are aware of within your family and community. 

Mass, three set times of prayer each day, and thoughtfully praying the Our Father – that’s a recipe for success. Commit to it for a month. Then ask the Lord how he wants to augment and add to that regimen. The Rosary? Reading from one of the gospels? The Stations of the Cross? As a Catholic you have the richest treasury of prayer known to man from which to draw.