Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Instead of today's intentions, some musings on prayer

In all honesty, I pray not nearly enough. If you were keeping a running total, and you subtracted all the prayers offered for relief from fear or anxiety, in fact, you would find that I really, really don't pray enough. (Thanks to Vice President Cheney, I'm praying a good bit more this week than recently!)

Petitionery prayers are well and good, and those make up much of my prayer. “Lord, please let Osama into the Light of Your Presence, sooner rather than later!” “Lord, please let my family get home safe, even though they are an hour late.” “Lord, please take care of my sick friend Karin.” Or even, “Lord, please help me not be such a blamed 'fraidy cat during the evening news.” These probably sound very familiar, and they are an appropriate form of prayer. Some think it impious to pray for oneself, a feeling that I have flirted with once or twice myself. But I came across a reflection in a book, where a minister told the author that “A man who won’t pray for himself is too Proud for his own good,” and that sounds more right to me. (The book was The Coalwood Way by Homer Hickam, which is worth a read.)

Unfortunately, petitions are where most prayer begins and ends. Real openness to the Spirit and to Christ, however, requires something more. My little boy sometimes tells God knock-knock jokes, which seems to me a rather excellent way to pray. I find it helpful sometimes not to think in words at all. Particularly when I am seeking forgiveness, words result in excuses and justifications for acts that will not allow them. A recollection of the actual thing for which forgiveness is sought and a general disposition of honest revulsion at my behavior help me to confront my sinfulness rather than hide from it. But other prayers too can benefit from a mental silence. The Spirit really does speak sometimes in a still, small voice, and too much internal chatter can drown it out.

Prayer in fact need not be about anything at all. Simply saying the Lord’s Prayer or Hail Mary for no good reason except I want to pray is sometimes the most settling of all. Just as I sometimes see a friend for no reason other than fellowship, sometimes I find praying for its own sake to be fulfilling.

Prayers of thanksgiving are perhaps my weakest area. I am willing to ask forgiveness, and I am willing to ask for all kinds of blessings, but only rarely do I remember to thank God once a blessing has been bestowed or forgiveness offered. Usually it is Pride that causes this--“Wow. I really did something special!”—rather than “Wow. Thank you God for doing that through (or for) me!”

Prayer is something that need not be done in isolation, or in designated places, or at designated times. A momentary pause in activity and a momentary thought to God can be done almost anywhere. Unfortunately, this possibility often leads me to forget that prayer sometimes does need to be done in isolation, in a church, or at a service. It is not an either/or proposition, but a both/and one. I need not wait for Mass to offer my thanks or ask God’s help, but I do need to do those at Mass as well.

Prayer need not even be prayer as such, all the time. Offering to God your particular activity at the moment, whether singing well, playing your position to the best of your ability, taking care of a child or a sick person, doing your job. All these, offered to God through the Spirit, are prayers.

Every one of these things I find to be necessary to having a good prayer life, and having a good prayer life is necessary to being well with the Spirit. Praying for myself, for others, for forgiveness. Praying out of gratitude, in Church, or for no particular reason at all. Praying a memorized form or comporting myself to listen. Offering my toils and troubles to God in a spirit of willingness.

How easy to write these things, how hard to remember them every day.

A caution, however, about prayer. Prayer ought not be a bludgeon with which we sneak a Judgment on others into our piety. All too often, I hear Christians say “I will pray for you” in a spirit of Uncharity or Anger or Pride, and I do not think such prayers are really prayer at all. It is one thing to say, “Dear Lord, please continue to show Kathy your Light, that she may move further into it.” But it is another thing entirely to turn that into “Dear Lord, thank you for making me so good. Please help that heathen Kathy get as good or as smart as I.” It is fine—Good, even—to pray that a person will become more open to God. Who among us cannot use such a prayer, after all? But it is dangerous in the extreme to pray for the sake of a living person’s soul, if one does so in judgment of that person ‘s worthiness.

I do not claim to avoid this sort of thing myself (cf., “Osama” above) at all times and everywhere. (Though I also think it not impious to pray for the defeat of one’s enemies in wartime, but would need to bore you again with many quotes from CS Lewis, and don’t have the time today.) I just warn that prayer should be the time when I am most open to the Spirit, and trying least to be clever.


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