Prayer is at the center of our relationship with God, since it’s how we contact Him, and Prayer is a prime resource of how we grow in Faith, so it makes sense to spend some time talking about it.
This was a series of short pieces for my parish bulletin, so forgive me for the brevity of the topics.
There are two kinds of prayer that are probably the most common through history: the “911″ prayer, and the “Santa” prayer. The “911″ type prayer is the one we all say when we’re in trouble, “Lord. get me out of this!.” It could also be called the “Foxhole” prayer. We know that God delivers His people, and there are times we need deliverance. The “Santa” type prayer asks God to give us something specific because we’ think we deserve it. The song from the musical _Fiddler on the Roof_, “If I Were A Rich Man”, is probably a good example. We want money, a new job, a special person, etc. and we ask God to give it to us because we’re good people and we want it.
The problem is: if these are the main ways we pray, we may think that God may have something against us, be punishing us for some sin, or maybe even, God doesn’t exist if we don’t get what we want. A passage from the Bible can be helpful: “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:3)”. Which means God may not give us what we want, because we’re only thinking about what we can get not about anything else. So perhaps the better course is asking what Prayer is all about, what expectations we bring to Prayer, and what should be expect from Prayer.
Considering the effectiveness of our prayers, we should remember God’s Greatest Gift to every human being: Free Choice. God lets us make Free Choices every time, even if that choice is against His will, even if it hurts someone else, even if we choose not to believe in Him at all. We have Free Choices even when we think we don’t. Some intellectuals ask why God couldn’t give us Free Choice and have us always choose Good, but that doesn’t seem a Free Choice after all: it’s having our cake and eating it, too. God never takes the gift back Free Choice: God will not make us puppets for any reason, and God will let us take the consequences of our choices.
Multiply a few million people making genuinely Free Choices, and conflicts are bound to happen, people are bound to get hurt. It’s also good to remember that God loves all of us, unconditionally and equally. Asking for something specific in prayer the wrong way can ask God to stop someone from making a Free Choice. That doesn’t mean He can’t persuade: God tries to persuade everyone to do Good all the time. However, there are times God may not seem to answer prayer because He has to let someone else make a Free Choice, even a catastrophically bad one.
In the wake of natural disasters, the question comes up again how a loving God could allow such things happen. For some people, this is proof God does not exist.
We do not understand how this planet works in enough detail. Tectonic plates shift and cause earthquakes, hot and cold air interact with moisture to produce varying kinds of winds and precipitation, sunspots appear and disappear according to cycle. The Earth may need to be hit by lightning 15 times per minute to preserve some kind of greater stability. Should we be in the wrong place at the wrong time, we’re hit. Should we build a house in a dangerous place, like a floodplain, then disaster isn’t a matter of if but when.
The forces of Nature don’t have intelligence, they don’t decide to hurt people. Viruses replicate because that’s all they know to do, they don’t have insight to realize they’re hurting someone or they’ll kill their host and perhaps themselves They are here as part of the mystery of Creation, and God may need to let them operate freely as surely as He has to give us Free Choice. So as we form our prayers, we must be mindful of how nature works, pray that we may not put ourselves needlessly into danger, and pray for those who suffer from the effects of Nature’s actions.
Jesus’ Disciples asked Him how to pray and he told them. The result is the Lord’s Prayer, which we pray every week during Mass, and is part of larger sets of prayers such as the Rosary. In looking at Jesus’ model of prayer, it’s good to reflect on what it asks and what it doesn’t ask.
The Lord’s Prayer asks for: an unconditional fulfillment of God’s Will, and our basic needs (food, protection, mercy). It doesn’t ask for OUR wants to be fulfilled. It doesn’t ask God to make other people behave differently, or punish people who deserve it (which might be awkward since we ask God to be as merciful toward us as we are toward others). It is simple in form, and it begins and ends with God if we do the “doxology” portion (“…for the Kingdom, the Glory. . .”)
Jesus’ model of prayer is a prayer that directs us toward God, and seeks to place us more perfectly in sync with His action in the universe. That is something I think is very important as we consider our own expectations of prayer, and how we should approach any prayer we make.
Liturgy is the Public Work of the Catholic Church (and other liturgical churches). The Eucharist is celebrated somewhere in the world almost every day of the year, the Divine Office is the Liturgy of the Hours prayed by Religious and lay people around the clock. Both these kinds of prayer are bound to the rhythm of the seasons, traveling the Life of Christ in as completely as possible through the course of the year. Liturgical Prayer is about the Sanctification of Time, among other things it is about making all Time God’s Time.
Our approach to Liturgical Prayer isn’t about self-expression, it’s about expressing Christ. We’re going to affect it the same way we affect everything we come into contact with, that’s unavoidable. A prayer is going to be affected by the tone of our voice and inflections, a song is going to be affected by how we sing it. However, we are called to pour ourselves into this prayer and by formed by it into the Image of Christ. Prayer is supposed to shape us. Particularly in the Eucharist, we are part of Christ’s prayer to the Father (John 17), offered by Christ to Him and consecrated to the Truth.
Liturgical Prayer isn’t about entertainment, good feelings, or doing what we want. It is about the presence of Christ active in the world today. It’s also at the core of who we are and what we believe, it is the primary laboratory where we put what we believe into practice.
Contemplation is a different kind of prayer that we’re accustomed to: it’s about entering Holy Silence. It’s not a prayer that we make up the words for, if there are any words, they are words that help us focus and let go of the busyness of the world around us. The Rosary can be this kind of prayer, as well as several other devotional prayers; Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament can also be a way of contemplation. The prayers keep our conscious mind occupied while we open our inner self to Christ in the Great Silence of God. We can also enter that Silence in other places, other ways, we can even do it in the midst of chaos if we’re good enough.
We live in a culture that discourages Contemplation, we are urged to keep busy and keep our focus on ourselves. We’re suppose to spend whatever unoccupied time thinking about getting what we want and when we figure that out, we can stop thinking. Contemplation slows us down and helps keeps our focus on God. Generally, we don’t do enough Contemplation in our lives, and it takes a real discipline to make time for it. It’s not about rattling off prayers just to get a reward for doing something good, the time for Adoration, praying the Rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet or Precious Blood prayers is a time to go slowly and cultivate the stillness. A time to put the world on hold, and make room for Christ.
Intercession is another kind of prayer we do regularly, prayer for people in need.. It’s a major part of our liturgical prayer, something we pray when we hear someone we care for needs help, something we pray when the world needs to be changed. Christ promised us that when ever two or more of us ask anything in His name, it would be given us.
While we pray for others, we need to keep in mind that God already knows all of our needs and is working for our good. We need to remember that God’s Will is something that will work out, and our concerns will be addressed in the context of God’s Will. As we pray for others, we shouldn’t think of “success” of our prayers, that our prayers are useless unless God gives us what we want. The purpose of our intercession isn’t to make God do something we want. We pray because we need to pray, we need to put our hearts in service of others in prayer when we’ve reached the limit of everything else we can do. We pray for others so we can be part of Christ’s Compassion.
Mark Twain wrote a controversial story toward the end of his life entitled The War Prayer. It was about a church service sending troops to war, when a mysterious stranger walked it, telling them that there were 2 prayers being offered: one for success for their troops and an unspoken prayer calling for catastrophic failure and Divine abandonment of their foes. He challenged them to acknowledge the unspoken prayer, but they thought he was crazy.
When we pray for blessings for ourselves or others we care for, we need to examine our intentions. Do we have a right to ask God to ignore anyone’s pleas for His aid in order to give us what we want? Our intentions aren’t as dramatic as Twain spoke of, but we do need to be sure that our prayers are not prayers for the failure or refusal of another’s legitimate need. I would genuinely fear the consequences of such a prayer for me, both in this world and the next.
What do we get out of prayer? After all, a dogma of this culture is if you aren’t getting anything out of what you’re doing, you should give it up. I’ve talked a lot about prayer this year, and at the end, the question of ‘why pray?’ comes up.
The wrong answer seems to be: “How can I get God to do what I want?” Do we know better how the world should be run than God does? Is there something God doesn’t know we need to remind Him to do, or even make Him do? Is God the Cosmic Butler who makes life easy for us, and we need to get our orders in?
For me, the right answer seems to be: “How can I do what God wants?” Remember the phrase from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come”. Prayer is the beginning of how we offer ourselves to God, which leads to how we live our lives. Prayer is the first step in our response to Christ’s love for us, poured out on the Cross in His Blood.
We pray because we need to; we pray because it’s good for us. Prayer is its own reward.