May 11, 2010

Why do we pray?

Why do we pray? Baptized into Christ, I pray for the transformation of the world, the realization of the victory of Good over Evil already realized in our midst and at the same time still unfolding. I pray for union with God and all those the Lord has entrusted to my prayers that they might know true and everlasting friendship with God and one another.

Sadly, my prayer did not start out this way and still falls short of everything it could be. This is because of my weak faith which wants to either manipulate God or else figure out a way to get along without Him. But these struggles I have become familiar with in prayer are struggles that a lot of people have. Sometimes rethinking (or perhaps, repenting) the reason I pray helps me get back on track.

Many people approach prayer as a form of divine manipulation. To give such people credit, they actually think that prayer has the power to change the world. Yet their presumption seems inappropriate when we consider who God actually is, or at least who He is not. For starters, He is not to be manipulated. The Almighty Creator of the entire cosmos and all living things that in it should not be treated with such disrespect.  He knows what we are going to think even before it occurs to us, and that we should be calculating with his generous love breaks his heart.  In the face of such love, how completely inappropriate to presume that if I haggle with Almighty enough, He will give me what I want. This was the approach of the prophets of Ba’al before Mt. Carmel in their contest against Elijah and the Living God. Anyone who really wants to begin to pray knows in his heart that all forms of Ba’al worship or divine exploitation must be rejected. So if prayer is not manipulation, what is it?

Once, an atheist physicist was dying and the nurse asked if she could pray for him. And he agreed, saying “You can talk to yourself all day long if you think it will make you feel better." There are quite a few people like this physicist. They approach prayer as a psychologically therapeutic exercise. By this I mean, they do not really believe prayer does anything to change reality. Rather, many people pray simply to feel better about themselves or a situation. For these, prayer relieves anxiety or sorrow or anger or stress – sometimes it can even make you feel ‘spiritual.’ But beyond its psychological effects, they presume that their prayers do not really have anything to do with God’s work, his divine plan.

For a majority of people today in consumerist America, prayer is either useless or a danger. It is associated with delusional behavior, with the irrational. Some philosophers considered religion in general and prayer specifically as a type of opiate. Prayer needs to be limited if not completely removed from society because it is a drug that prevents people from dealing with reality.

St. Therese of Lisieux described prayer as a cry of the heart and St. Thomas explains that the most fundamentally meaning of prayer is that it is a petition, a request of something from God. Like all petitions, prayer involves the intellect, it must be rational. This not only means that a petition requires ideas to be properly ordered according to the law of rhetoric. Rational has ancient senses which we have lost. According to the wisdom of the West, to be rational, prayer must be “in harmony with,” “a mediation,” “a relation to the truth.” All of this is implied in “Word” or “Logos” revealed in the sacred manhood of Jesus Christ. Christian prayer is characterized by petitions which are in harmony with, mediating and in relation to the Word become Flesh. Intimacy with Christ makes prayer rational, and because Christian prayer is rational, it really does change the world, starting with our own hearts.

This definition addresses the problem of Ba’alism. It is irrational to demand or presume when there is no basis for demanding or presuming anything. As human beings, our only standing before God is one of humble petition, relying on Him and waiting for His answer in faith, an answer which is always better than what we have asked for.

This definition also addresses the problem of those who reduce prayer to the merely psychologically therapeutic or even dehumanizing. Actually, humbly asking God is in accord with the dignity of being human because God has chosen humankind to be a kind of mediator of his presence in the world. From the beginning, God has humbly submitted his plans for the whole of creation to the prayers of men and women. He actually hopes in us, trusts that we will collaborate with Him by fulfilling that part of His work entrusted to us. This is what is implied when we say that man and woman are in the image and likeness of God. We can hope in Him because He hopes in us even more.

It is this dignity that Jesus Christ re-established through his passion, death and resurrection – He is the mediator into which we are incorporated as members of his mystical body. Even now at the right hand of the Father He continues to intercede for us without cease and we can join Him by learning to pray without ceasing. Our true identity is realized through union with Him, and in Him we learn to pray so as to transform the world.