Sunday, September 26, 2010

A few reflections on prayer

Where does prayer come from? Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays. But in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.

The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.
Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ. It is the action of God and of man, springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the human will of the Son of God made man. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition, 2562-2564)
“Man is in search of God,” the Catechism reminds us. Many priests, pastoral theologians and religious folk speak of the “God-shaped hole in our souls”; friendships, loves, wealth, success, power and fame still leave us crying for more, dissatisfied without knowing why. Our spiritual lives begin when we finally acknowledge that “hole” for what it is, rather than attempt to fill it with material goods, desperate activity and frantic pleasure-seeking. In acknowledging his need for and dependence on God, Man does not surrender his own dignity or intrinsic worth. Instead, he finds them given new strength as a child of God, who says to him, “You are my beloved son.”

Many of us are what I should call “practical atheists”. Our lips may say, Credo in unum Deum,[1] but our actions, thoughts and words more honestly say, Non serviam.[2] God exists, but as so much mental furniture, over which we occasionally stumble; His commands we treat as requests to be considered at our leisure, when we don’t have more important things to do. Science and philosophy have nothing to do with it: God is a practical inconvenience, to be given occasional, nominal worship and otherwise shut off in a corner where He can present the least obstruction to our self-centered lives. It’s not that He is disconnected and ignorant of the universe He has created, but that we make Him irrelevant.

In acknowledging that “hole”, Man comes to the point of humility: he recognizes—perhaps for the first time in his life—that he is not the center of the universe, nor even the most important creature in it. He finds that he is not in total control of his life, that his life has been as much about chance as about preparation and decision. He comes to the realization of his contingency: he is a dependent of the cosmos; his existence is transient and even superfluous. He finally entertains the possibility that God in fact does care, that He does take an active interest in the doings of His creatures, that He does really desire us to recognize not only His Reality but His Lordship over all creation.

The relationship between God and Man is not equal, and will never be equal. “In Him we live and move and have our being,” said St. Paul, paraphrasing Epimenides.[3] Elihu reminds Job: “Who gave [God] charge over the earth, and who laid on Him the whole world? If He should take back His Spirit to himself, and gather to Himself His breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.”[4] We can’t approach Him as equals, or as constituents of an elected official. Nor can we say to Him, “I shall serve, but only upon my terms, and only to the extent I desire.” Nor can we treat Him as a genie who will give us all we demand so often as we rub the lamp with our prayers. The words our Lord Jesus gave us weren’t, “My will be done,” but rather, “Thy will be done.”

On this level, then, there is no point in asking whether prayers in general, or any specific prayer for any specific intention, is instrumentally effective. In prayer we do not seek to compel God to any task or boon, as spiritualists attempt to constrain the dead or Satanists attempt to control demons. Rather, in praying we remind ourselves that the Will of God is paramount, that nothing befalls us which God has not either actively decreed should happen or passively allowed to happen, that God is as free to say “No” as He is to say “Yes”. We ask because it is good to ask, and not demand or expect.

While it isn’t wrong to concern ourselves with the needs of the body—food, clothes and shelter—these are animal needs; the more we obsess over the animal, the less care we give to the spiritual. “For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”[5] Indeed, throughout the centuries, men and women have deliberately embraced material poverty, seeking the kingdom of God and entrusting themselves to His providence for the needs of the day.[6] Many more, though, have gone through their lives seeking material wealth, and ended their days not only materially poor but spiritually bankrupt as well.

(And yet there are those who live in desperate poverty, starvation and illness without seeking either. In a sense, we can say that God has willed it so, not from malice or anger but to give the rest of us opportunity to share. And in another sense, we can say it is so because we have willed it. For we have chosen to create among ourselves economic systems which allow a very few to amass great wealth, which can’t happen without creating great poverty for others. As long as there is unequal distribution of resources, there cannot be those who have far more than they need to live without there being those who have less than their fair share; a man can’t become rich without, in some sense, snatching the bread from others’ mouths. An essential part of storing riches in heaven is giving aid to those who suffer bodily.[7] This is not only an act of love, but also of justice, in returning that which one doesn’t need to those who do.)

Prayer is not simply an act of lips moving, air striking vocal cords and waves of sounds flowing through our mouths. Our bodies also conform themselves to this attitude of submission: our knees bend, our hands fold together and our heads bend in supplication. We may begin with the physical act of speaking, but we must eventually move to that stage of contemplation, where we finally encounter God. Only there, in a wordless dialogue (cor ad cordiam loquitur),[8] is the final surrender to the Will of God accomplished, when we finally say, with the Blessed Virgin Mother, “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.”[9] (It is for this act of total self-abnegation that Jesus tells us she is blessed, not just because she gave birth to the Redeemer, but because she heard the word of God and obeyed.)[10] There, in our hearts, we return the gift of self to God, Who gave it to us before; we remove God from the shelf we had placed Him on, and enthrone Him in our souls.

The logic of prayer runs counter to the wisdom of the world, which tells us that we ought to live for “self-actualization”, that we need to assert, validate and nurture our selves in an orgy of ego-masturbation. The world tells us to indulgently praise our worthy selves like the Pharisee, where the logic of prayer would have us beat our breasts like the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”[11] True prayer only becomes possible, in the end, when we finally see our pretences for what they are, and realize that no amount of self-love will succeed in filling the hole.

And it’s in prayer that, learning to love God as we ought, we learn to love others as we ought.


[1] “I believe in one God”: the first words of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
[2] “I will not serve,” or “I will not be a servant”: traditionally the words Lucifer spoke, which precipitated his fall. Thus Milton: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
[3] Ac 17:28. The line comes from Cretica, of which a fragment in Syriac still exists.
[4] Job 34:13-15.
[5] Lk 12:23.
[6] Vide Lk 12:22-34; cf. Mt 6:25-33.
[7] Cf. Lk 12:33, 18:22; Mt. 6:19-21; see also Mt 25:34-40.
[8] “Heart speaks unto heart”: the motto of Bl. John Henry Newman.
[9] Lk 1:38: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
[10] Lk 11:28.
[11] Lk 18:9-14.