Reflections on Prayer

The disciples ask our Lord to teach them to pray, and we must do the same. For we do not know how to pray -­ and knowing that we don’t know, and feeling our incapacity, is part of what praying involves. If we ever felt that our praying were adequate, or even proficient, it would be a sure sign that we had gone astray.

So when we ask our Lord to teach us, we should not think of being shown a skill or technique that we can master, in which we can watch ourselves growing and one day satisfy ourselves that we have become fluent and accomplished. What we are being taught is something we cannot really do, and the fact that we cannot do it is precisely what we are meant to learn -­ together with the necessity of carrying on. And in fact not just carrying on, but in the midst of being taught our incapacity, we are also taught to be persevering and full of confidence: Ask and it will be  iven to you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. This perseverance and confidence are not on account of our own successes. Indeed, in as much as we are dealing with something we know how to do and to achieve, we have no sign or guarantee that we are drawing near to God: our capacities may in fact distance us, while our incapacities, lived out in prayer, can make us close. For after all [we] who are evil know how to give good gifts to [our] children -­ here our proficiency, our know-­how, coheres with estrangement from God, and may even be a root of it, since to focus on what we can do means we are still relying on ourselves. But the ground of prayer is not our own know-­how, but God’s alone: how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. In being taught to pray, we are learning to unlearn trust in ourselves, and to trust entirely in God. Learning to pray is to learn failure at our own hands, and self­-abandonment into the hands of the Father.

And even within our distance from God, even in the midst of our sins and imperfections, we can give ourselves to Him in this way, we can still pray. In order to pray we do not have to be what we are not -­ we can pray exactly as we are, always and everywhere. In the parable of the midnight visit of one friend to another, the householder rises up and gives to his friend not because he is his friend, but because of his importunity. At first sight this is disconcerting. Responding just because someone is persistent seems less exalted than acting out of friendship, so why is this response commended to us? But it is intended to be a parable of ourselves and God. God is the householder, and He does not await friendship with us ­ we could put it by saying that He does not await our being in the state of grace – ­before responding to us; for even if we are estranged from Him by sin, still, if we give ourselves to asking persistently, He will reach out to us, however ambiguous and divided we may seem in our own eyes.

And indeed when do we not seem to ourselves ambiguous and divided? To be placed before the Father, to abandon ourselves into His hands, is, precisely in our ambiguity and dividedness, to become a child. Being a child of the Father does not mean a return to some impossible  nnocence and perfection. On the contrary it means taking our weakness, our inabilities, our dependence, entirely for granted, regarding them as so obvious as to be beyond question, and at the same time looking away from ourselves, knowing that even as we are falling we are being upheld, that even though everything seems impossible, unmanageably arduous and beyond us, nonetheless we are safe, if only we will cease struggling and hand ourselves over. It is not our name that we ask to be hallowed, but the Father’s.

In struggling to hallow our own names, to see in ourselves the ideal we aspire to, we cease to be a child and treat ourselves as adults, turning inescapably from God to ourselves, fascinated by our successes and failures, anxious to see ourselves according to the form that we project and desire, and anxious that we cannot in fact find that form reflected back at us, agitated that the mirror we hold up to ourselves denies us what we seek. How easily the pursuit of salvation declines into this kind of sanctified narcissism.

And then discouragement is almost inevitable -­ unless it is staved off by rigorous self-deception. Discouragement in prayer, the feeling that we are getting nowhere and that everything about it is pointless, is usually rooted in nothing more than vanityfrustrated vanity, the inability in prayer to find ourselves as we want ourselves to be. But prayer isn’t about finding ourselves, it’s not even about finding God -­ it’s about trusting God, handing ourselves over to Him, not because we can see what He is doing in us, and with us, but because we trust that He is acting nonetheless, even in our distractions and frustrations, despite our helplessness to find reassurance in ourselves, notwithstanding that glance in the mirror that always disappoints. We must stop looking in the mirror, stop being guided by the image we hope to see reflected back at us, and instead give ourselves to God. When we pray, we cast the mirror away from us and say Father.

But of course we can’t cast it away -­ not definitively or completely. We cannot stop altogether looking at ourselves, being anxious about ourselves. And so in prayer we always expose ourselves to the possibility of own resistance, of saying no to being a child, or at least of feeling the turbulence of our folly, our pretentious adulthood, surging within us, threatening to submerge our efforts to give ourselves away. This tension is central to prayer, central to the way it draws us from ourselves even as we feel the pull of self-assertion, of attachment to our selves and our projects, to our hopes and our worries. All this is what we call distraction at prayer, and at least in any long term way it is probably ineliminable. Prayer is a matter of having patience with our distraction, not indeed of giving in to it, but of being assured that, in spite of it, we are being sustained, given our daily bread, spared irresistible temptation even as temptation swarms within and around us, and growing, in spite of everything, according to an often hidden work of purification. Prayer trusts and awaits what it cannot necessarily see or feel, even sometimes in the midst of seeing and feeling the opposite, experiencing the defeat of its demands and expectations ­- seeming to receive the serpent rather than the fish, the scorpion rather than the egg. And yet God knows what He is about. And so prayer says Thy Kingdom come. We do not ask to apprehend the Kingdom, to witness or experience it. We ask only that it be –  and this asking, this confidence and patient awaiting, in the midst of every obscurity, is itself the Kingdom and its coming, which is the work of prayer, the giving of ourselves to God.

Finally, we should note that the disciples ask to be taught how to pray after they see Christ Himself at prayer; and when He reassures them that the Father knows what they need and means to give it to them, He summarizes this promise by speaking of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Christ Himself praying, and the promise of the Holy Spirit to those who follow Him -­ these two themes, the very beginning and the very end of today’s Gospel, frame for us theologically the whole mystery of prayer. For Christ Himself prays to the Father in the Holy Spirit, and it is in the Holy Spirit that we ourselves are given a share in the relation of the Son to the Father, which means that our prayer is ultimately to be understood as a sharing in the prayer of Christ Himself. Just as there is only one Sacrifice in Christianity -­ the sacrifice of Christ ­- and every other sacrifice is simply a participation in it, so there is really only one prayer in Christianity -­ the prayer of Christ to the Father -­ and every other prayer is only a participation in this one. So everything that we have said about prayer speaks of a mode of our participation in Christ.

We can think of this from two perspectives: from the point of view of the Old Testament and the New. First, from the point of view of the Old Testament, it is one of the oldest insights of Christianity that in the psalms we hear, as if veiled, the voice of Christ in prayer to His Father. Now if we think of the psalms, and of how often they speak of affliction and darkness in our relation to God, and of the temptation even to despair, and then consider that this is ultimately Christ speaking in us and for us -­ then we can see that no difficulty in prayer, or in the life of one who prays, is alien to the prayer of Christ, and therefore to His companionship and strength in the human struggle to pray.

In the New Testament, the pattern veiled in the Old Testament is made visible and brought to completion. The psalms are brought to consummation in the Paschal Mystery, so that the challenge of prayer, its difficulty, sometimes even its apparent impossibility, are revealed as dimensions of our participation in the prayer of the Incarnate Word in Crucifixion and Resurrection. Now we can participate in Him only because He first participated in us -­ taking to Himself everything that belonged to our condition, including all the struggles of prayer, and enacting, in them and through them, what it means to be a child of God. So He inhabits our struggles to pray, and in inhabiting them extends to us His capacity, which is otherwise entirely beyond us, to endure them and, through that endurance, to bring our prayers to fruition. But just as, in His case, the bearing fruit of His prayers to the Father, in the Resurrection, was possible only because there was first the Cross, so that the only possibility of prayer for Him, in the end, came down to utter self-abandonment, beyond anything He could see or feel or even articulate -­ so also for us, who share in His prayer, our praying will take place inescapably under the sign of the Cross, as the condition of any fruitfulness it has for us and for the world. Our incapacity to pray, as well as our perseverance and confidence in doing so, is finally revealed as having a Christological form, in which we encounter Christ Himself, in His weakness and in His strength. For when we pray we are entering, in the Holy Spirit, into the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, placed in union with Him before and towards the Father, for the sake of the reconciliation and  consummation of the world. For all our mediocrity and insufficiency, nothing less than this is the horizon of our praying.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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