When I was growing up it sometimes seemed as if prayers were offered up to just about anybody, so long as they had some connection to the Christian monotheistic tradition. God, the saints, Mary, dead relatives, Jesus, Jesus’s dog. If you had ears – or had once had ears – then you were a fit object for prayer. I wondered sometimes if it mattered how we directed our prayer. Were prayer requests to Jesus more likely to yield fruit than those offered to our grandparents? Or Saint Jude? I used to pray to trees and flowers. Was that okay, too?
When it comes to prayer – especially prayer that is linked to getting some thing or some result (what is traditionally called petitionary prayer) – we all want the secret sauce. How do you pray to God for help? How do you ensure a response? Are there any guarantees when we pray?
One way to approach prayer is to focus less on results and more on process. We should not come to God and Jesus the way we approach real estate agents or car salesmen. It is not a question of bringing our A game, the better to maximize returns. It is closer to marriage, closer to parenting. It’s closer to a friendship that lasts a lifetime. Sometimes, it is important to ask what we can offer. Sometimes it’s better not to think about our needs and wants but to focus on those of others. It’s not that God is going to turn away from us in anger or disgust. It’s just that we love God, too. Why not act that way?
If we are honest, this makes intuitive sense. God is not in the dark about our lives. It is not like we are filling in the blanks for a boss who only thinks of us when we come in for a raise or to complain about office politics. As Jesus said so long ago, “your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.”
There is real comfort in that line. If we really give attention to it – if we are open to it – then we see that it calls on us to be faithful. It asks that we take a deep breath and be a little slower to judge what’s going on in what we are calling our lives in what we are calling the world. Behind every plea to God that our lives be changed – whether we’re pulling for more sun during the family vacation or the removal of fatal cancer cells – is the notion that we know better than God what’s right and good and necessary. And we really have to question the wisdom of that conclusion. We have to consider the possibility that we don’t have a clue – or at least that somebody else might have more clues than we do. As Bill Thetford said to Helen Schucman, there must be a better way, right.
Does this mean that prayer is fruitless? Beside the point? Or maybe just a matter of listening rather than talking? Or something else altogether?
Not necessarily. Nor, by the way, are we supposed to play it tough. If we’re scared or in pain, then we should bring it to God. By all means we should talk to God, if talking to God is what works, what resonates, what comforts, what helps. Reach for the hand of Jesus. If your best friend or your child needed you to listen to them, would you turn away? Would you tell them to suck it up?
It’s always okay – it’s more than okay – to turn to God or Jesus (or Buddha or a grandmother or Saint Therese) when we’re in need. Those are important prayers. What I am suggesting – gently, gently – is that we reconsider the nature of our investment in prayer. Are we asking for comfort or are we asking for a specific result that we’ve decided is right? It is another of asking: are we trusting a ay other than our own?
To trust God is to be faithful. To trust God is to see your own self differently. It is to recognize the futility of self-directed and self-obsessed effort. It is to seek a better way. When we are really in that space of trust it helpfully shifts the focus from our own efforts to an effort – a source – that transcends us. It’s a letting go of what is small in favor of what is grand and inclusive and joyful. It’s not academic or intellectual. It can be done in our lives – an embodied experience – and we can feel its effects.
Prayer has its own energy. That’s one of the reasons it can be fruitfully compared to significant relationships. There’s nothing static about it. What works today might not work tomorrow. What worked ten years ago and hasn’t been tried since might make a sudden reappearance. It’s a two way street. It has to be.
That, in the end, is what we can rely on: the mutuality of prayer. Whether we come to the zafu or the prie dieu or the bedroom rocker or a favorite tree in the forest . . . we go there to meet the One who is there because that is where we go to meet them.