Monday, February 20, 2006

What is Prayer? Speaking

Just in case you’re a little overwhelmed with the past few days’ posts on punishment and suffering (don’t forget all the positive aspects, though!), I thought I’d go back to prayer and offer a short series of reflections thereon. Many volumes can be (and have been) written on prayer, so I won’t go into much detail here. I would just like to give a little refresher course on three very general dimensions: prayer as speaking, listening, and living.

We’re probably mostly familiar with prayer as speaking, talking to God (though sometimes it degenerates into “instructing” Him about how things ought to be, or yelling or complaining). Liturgical prayer is full of words, though these are better sung than spoken. Most of our various devotions are full of words, too, and this is OK, as long as it isn’t the sum total of our prayer.

We really must speak to God, because we need to unburden our hearts, to know that there is Someone there who will listen to us and who understands both our inner and outer situations, as well as our stumbling attempts to express ourselves. We don’t have to walk on eggshells around God or polish our grammar. He wants us to be ourselves, because He has no use for phony piety or a veneer of righteousness presented to Him. All He really wants to do is heal our broken or defiled hearts.

So the first thing is to be honest. Once you’ve offered some formal or traditional prayers, just sit down and open your heart and tell the Lord about your day. Sometimes the above-mentioned yelling and complaining might enter here, but even that is not so bad, as long as it isn’t mean-spirited or self-indulgent. After all, even the psalmists, whose prayers are part of the Bible, yelled and complained. One of my favorite introductions is from Psalm 63(64): “Hear me, O God, as I complain…” No pious façade there! But your prayer must not end with your complaint. Tomorrow we'll talk about quietly waiting for God’s answer.

Words can be helpful for expressing what we wish to offer to God in prayer, be it adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, or repentance. We have to be a little careful, though, especially if we happen to be rather good with words, that we don’t end up offering prayers that have for us a satisfying sound, when they may not be so satisfying to God! Yet we were created as the only earthbound beings that can think and communicate with words, so it’s of our very nature to want to speak to God, to praise and thank Him, to enter into a dialogue of love with Him. The mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart, and the Lord is waiting to hear from us.

Probably the bulk of most people’s prayers are prayers of petition. In fact, the word “prayer” literally means a request or entreaty. This kind of prayer is often considered the lowest form of prayer, unless your entreaty is an act of intercession for others. But it’s clear in the Scriptures that God knows we’ll be praying for our own needs as well, and He welcomes such prayer. Pope John Paul II, one of the great men of prayer of this century, said when he was young, he didn’t use this kind of prayer much. “A prayer of supplication seemed to be something unworthy,” he told one of his biographers a few years ago. Asking for things seemed too small. But as he grew older, he changed his mind. “Today I ask very much,” he said.

The Lord told us to ask and we shall receive—perhaps not exactly what and when our prayers specify, but we shall receive good things from the hand of the Father, as He does everything for our spiritual growth and salvation. But it is still important to ask. Once a man was healed from a certain affliction, and he gave the credit to God. A friend taunted him a bit: “How do you know it was God who healed you?” “Simple,” he replied, “He was the only one I asked!”

So let us open our hearts and our mouths to bless the Lord and pray to Him. So much evil is done with words, so many mouths need a good washing out with soap! Let us use ours to adore the Lord and give him thanks, to make reparation for those who blaspheme or sin with words, to repent of our own sins and to seek his assistance in our needs and those of others. For even if speaking to God isn’t the highest form of prayer, it is one He cherishes and expects from us, his children. But let us ask the Holy Spirit to inspire our words, for we know not how to pray as we ought, yet the Spirit can give us words that will find their way to the Heart of God. “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto You… Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!” (Ps. 101[102]).