The Nature of Prayer

    Q.  What is Prayer?  In our earlier parable we used the image of a ladder which is meant to illustrate two things. First it lifts the mind and heart out of its usually mundane sphere by clearing away much of our mental clutter. Secondly it offers us a heightened perspective on reality; allowing one to freely experience the more spiritual, reflective parts of human nature. But prayer must also go beyond our inner thoughts and consciousness. Simply stated, it is an ongoing conversation we carry on with God. Because it is extremely difficult to develop a true friendship without conversation, as we all know, it is often the quality of our conversations that will determine the level of friendship.

There are many different kinds of conversation that we might have, with another person – or with God.  For instance, when the phone rings and we hear a strange voice on the other end trying to solicit our opinions or to sell us some product, what kind of relationship does that represent? It immediately established the relationship of buyer and seller. For some people prayer is just that, a business transaction with God, trying to get something they may want out of God and at the least possible cost. For such people, God is simply a dispensary, and when he doesn’t dispense whatever they might be seeking they simply put him aside. Such a relationship is hardly one of trust or affection. For them, prayer is simply a process of bartering.

Prayer can be likened to the mail, something we are placing in God’s mailbox. Some is obviously junk mail to be quickly glanced at and toss out. Other mail might be bills or statements, or possibly checks. Some letters can be demanding, imploring, business-like, or even poignant. Some come via special delivery, another might be a one time letter from a casual acquaintance we met on vacation. Then there are the once-a-year letters from old comrades. Each different piece of correspondence possesses its own amount of personal value, little or great. We sort through the stack and keep, or dispose, each letter according to its worth. The most cherished mail we receive though are letters from family members or loved ones far away. So the question to ask oneself is, when we pray to God are we sending him junk mail, a business proposition, a demand note, or a love letter?

The method we use to pray bears directly on the quality of that conversation with God. Consider another kind of conversation that I am sure many of us dread. I call it the spider web. Have you ever been trapped in a monologue where one person does all the talking and expects the other person to simply listen? In fact such people do not converse so much as discourse their unwilling victims into silent submission. Prayer is not a monopoly where we do all the talking and expect God to patiently listen to our non-stop ranting. What kind of relationship do you imagine that will build up? The goal of every healthy relationship is to deepen our understanding of and appreciation for the other. True friendship is based upon mutual exchange, not dominance. Prayer implies a willingness to listen to God as well as speaking to him, after all. Otherwise the relationship becomes very one-sided and ultimately unsatisfying.

There are two distinct modes of prayer, active and contemplative. Both have a place in a well developed prayer life. In active prayer one speaks directly to, or perhaps meditates upon God or some aspect of scripture, doctrine, etc. Our mind is doing the work. But there are times we need to simply clear our minds for contemplation, which means becoming very silent so that the Holy Spirit can speak directly to our hearts. This is the kind of prayer that the prophets from Abraham onward frequently engaged in. Remember how young Samuel was instructed to reply when being called in the middle of the night? “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1Sam. 3:9)

We need to make that beautiful prayer of Samuel our own if we hope to deepen our friendship with God. Silence is an essential pre-condition for entering into contemplative dialogue with God. Unplug your cellphones and electronic devices. The mind must disengage before the heart can become fully engaged. Contemplation is the prayer of listening to whatever God wants to whisper in our ear.

Many have asked why any human should pray to some invisible being? Is prayer just indulging a wishful fancy of the mind?  Yet it would also seem that prayer, which is as old as human existence itself, endures because “Man is in search of God,” so says the Catechism. We are creatures made to be in relationship, not only with one another, but also with the One who created us. That is why the Catechism also reminds us that, “All religions bear witness to man’s essential search for God.” That word ‘essential’ means that the search for God is a necessary condition of our existence. It is not optional but rather it becomes the spiritual equivalent of breathing or sleeping. And if God is the infinitely superior being our very existence and prosperity depend upon, then it stands to reason that any relationship with him must be founded on two things: faith and humility.

Prayer then is both an act of faith and an attitude of humility which enables one to enter into relationship with the deity, however understood. We see this attitude expressed in every religion from the most primitive to the grandest. Whether in a rude hut or a majestic cathedral, countless generations have raised their hearts in humility and faith to something greater than man. Prayer entails humble acknowledgment, petition, and thanksgiving ─ whether to a local corn god or the supreme Maker of the Universe. Regardless of any individual’s understanding or perception of deity, prayer is a basic attempt to establish some kind of relationship with the deity.

Surely God wants to hear our needs spoken to him, even though he already knows them in minute detail. In fact he understands them far better than we do which may explain that frequent discrepancy between what we ask for and what he grants us. The important thing isn’t getting everything we ask for but in being thankful for everything he continues to give us. But by asking nonetheless, we develop that childlike quality of trust. Prayer must be a sign of our confidence in God’s paternal providence, not a litany of demands or expectations that we feel deserving of. Never confuse his gifts for an entitlement.

St. Augustine taught that God supplies the initial seeds of faith to every person but that prayer is required not only for its initial development but also for the grace of final perseverance.  If Augustine is correct this would mean that no one is exempt from praying. Men, women, and children alike have both the right and the obligation to pray to that Supreme Deity dwelling mysteriously at the center of every human heart. Corn gods may come and go from one culture to the next, but every righteous person will instinctively be aware of this larger, abiding presence of God within every human heart, and hopefully respond to it in truth. That initial response is the germinal seed of prayer.

But not all humans are disposed to pray it would seem. The proud or conceited man has little desire to pray because he believes himself to be self-sufficient. This sort of impiety seems to flourish in societies where people are highly educated, or at least technically trained. Technology can easily create the illusion that we are not as dependent on God’s good will as were less sophisticated cultures in the past. Excessive wealth can have a similar effect on people. But in reality prayer is all the more more necessary in prosperous cultures because it alone can dispose the human heart to that spirit of humility which constantly reminds us just who we are and who God is. So in one sense poverty could be seen as a great blessing because it naturally maintains a healthier sense of proportion between us and God.

But even more than poverty, it is suffering that instills the virtue of humility which is so beneficial to any fruitful prayer life. While many people would rather blame God for all the suffering in the world, they are perhaps looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Is it possible that God allows suffering because of its ability to preserve the very people he has blessed materially from the attacks of excessive pride? I am not trying to rationalize those terrible evils that cause such great suffering for so many. Taken at face value, suffering will tend to embitter the person who must experience it. But for the person of faith who can accept it gracefully, suffering deepens the soul and gives one the ability to recognize the presence of God in places we would never imagine him to be (on a cross for instance). Suffering, in other words, is a kind of silent prayer that penetrates more deeply to the heart of God than any words we might utter because he himself experienced it most intensely on our behalf. Suffering thereby became the ultimate form of prayer, a prayer known as sacrifice.

“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,” (Heb. 5:8) Suffering is given the highest value as a prayer by Christ himself, conditional upon our own free will to offer it as such to God. It need not be loud or dramatic, sometimes it can be as silent as the breeze.

Many years ago I knew an elderly couple who were the kindest neighbors one could imagine.  Helen and Walter were quiet, modest people willing to help wherever possible and yet never pushy. They were also very refined and elegant, obviously well educated, and cheerful to a fault. They both had strong German accents, having migrated to this country many years before with their young son. For several years I did not realize that they were Jewish, and even then it took me some time to understand that they had been forced to flee the brutal Nazi regime. Other members of their families had not been so lucky. Only later did I put all the pieces together, for they never spoke directly of their former life in Germany or the horrors they had undoubtedly witnessed: the loss of property and family, friends, and neighbors to infernal death camps.

How was it possible, I wondered, for people who had witnessed firsthand such barbaric cruelties and unspeakable evils to be so apparently unperturbed by the horror of that experience? That they had been severely scarred could be seen in their ever pensive eyes, and yet never a word of recrimination or anger did they ever express in the dozen or so years that I knew them. They were certainly prayerful people and a great peace radiated from them both. This couple surely knew God deep within their hearts and I believe it was that relationship that not only sustained them but gave them every reason for joy despite the many pains that life had imposed on them.

I suspect that Helen and Walter had mastered that deeper form of prayer which God first initiates by opening the conversation with us. They understood the prayer of listening which occurs when we are silent and attentive to God, and not always doing the talking. Listening is imperative if we ever hope to enter into prayer in its fullest sense. It requires not only faith but a true sense of humility, meekness, filial piety, and submissiveness to the Spirit of God. “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God… a spirit of adoption through which we cry, Abba, Father!” (Rom. 8:14,15) In the end it is not we who pray to God, but rather it is God who is praying in us, but we must be ever attentive and free from distractions.

I am certain that God hears the fervent prayers of all righteous men and women, even in those instances where they are unable to call him by his proper name. And when prayer becomes a habitual state of mind we can then begin to enter into that fuller conversation with God. As we join our wills more and more to His will everything we do becomes more steeped in an attitude of prayer. St. Therese of Lisieux expressed prayer as, “a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”

While prayer is certainly pleasing to God, not all prayer is not equally efficacious. Nor can prayer alone save a person. Still, it is indispensable in achieving our salvation. The prayer of sacrifice is the most pleasing to God because it is the only prayer that can justify mankind in his sight. Every sacrifice is a prayer but not all prayer is sacrifice. That does not mean that lesser forms of prayer have no intrinsic value. On the contrary, when united to one particular sacrifice our individual prayers and personal sacrifices achieve an eternal value. And that is the prayer I will come back to in future posts.

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