Good morning all. I chose to address the topic of prayer this morning because I have so many questions and doubts about what prayer is, and if and how it “works”. I did not choose the topic because I know what you need to learn, but because I needed to learn, and knowing that I would be presenting is a powerful incentive to do some learning.
I begin with a confession. I have a lot of questions and uncertainties about what prayer is, and how we should practice prayer. Is it ever appropriate to talk about “using prayer”? What results we should expect from prayer, and does understanding prayer even matter? Is it better to know what prayer is? Or is it better to acknowledge that I do not know what prayer is, and pray anyway?
What does prayer look like/sound like/feel like in your life? Think about that for a minute, and be honest, because I won’t ask you to share your thoughts now.
What is the relationship between prayer and results, or answers to prayer? If your prayers are not answered, is it because you prayed wrong? Or prayed for the wrong thing? Or because you didn’t have enough faith? Does prayer change things? Or should it change people? Or both, or something entirely different?
When I reflect on the biblical teaching on prayer I have more questions: What is prayer when Jesus frequently withdrew to pray alone? Does that mean that we are such a frustration to God that he sometimes needs to get away from us -shut us out- and meditate in order to maintain equilibrium? Why did Jesus invite three disciples to join him in Gethsemane? Didn’t he know they would just fall asleep anyway? Why did Jesus tell people not to pray on street corners, but to pray in a closet? Are there lessons we should draw about praying in public, or in church? What is prayer when Paul tells us to pray without ceasing? And how does all of this fit with the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught us to pray?
I am not going to propose to answer all of these questions this morning. What I would prefer to do is to suggest a framework for processing these and other questions about prayer and our faith - faith understood not as a quantity of belief, but as our life lived before the God in whom we live and move and have our being. In fact, I hope some of these questions are blunted by the conversation today, not because these questions do not deserve to be addressed, because no sincere question is ever a bad question, but because sometimes a paradigm shift -sometimes moving to a different perspective- does change the questions that matter.
Part of my learning for this morning came through reading Everything Belongs: The gift of contemplative prayer, by Richard Rohr. Rohr is a Franciscan priest, and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque.
A flyleaf quote at the beginning of the book quotes Shams-ud-din Mohammed Hafiz:
Pulling out the chair
Beneath your mind
And watching you fall upon God -
There is nothing else for Hafiz to do
That is any fun in this world!
That gives you a taste of where this book about how everything belongs will approach prayer. The central concern in prayer is not us but God and, because of that, we are much more significant than we would be if prayer was all about us. The opening line of the book begins:
p13 We are a circumference people, with little access to the center... we can remain on the circumferences of our lives for quite some time. So long, that it starts feeling like the only “life” available.”
We live real lives, and we have real concerns, but sometimes we find ourselves paying attention to the urgent at the expense of taking care of the important, and we begin to feel that we are disintegrating, that the center does not hold. Sometimes we confuse attending church with attending to God, which is reverencing the real, and the community which is so vital to our health seems more draining than sustaining. What then?
In Everything Belongs, Rohr suggests a reorientation to everything that is as a way of practising the presence of God, which is prayer. There are no magical formulae, no special practices or liturgies, though these can be aids -as well as obstacles- to reverencing the real. Prayer should be simple, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be complicated.
A recurring theme for Rohr is that prayer is not primarily words or thoughts, but a way of living in the Presence; living in awareness of the Presence; enjoying the Presence, which is God. Contemplative prayer beyond words and thought is not a way of thinking, but a way of not thinking. Prayer is standing in the stream of our reality, which is always imbued by the presence of God. Prayer is not a particular practice or technique, but a place, an attitude, and a stance in which we live.
The primary characteristic of this stance is a radical orientation to love, to God. St John of the Cross was a medieval mystic who said that God refuses to be known except by love. It’s not a confident knowing all about God, or being confident that our God is God and there is no other, but the attitude that the God Who Is is the God we desire. It is being open to God in all of our life, because God can most easily be lost by being thought found” (31).
It’s not that words and thoughts are antithetical to or incompatible with prayer, but when we have too many words we do not value them, even if they contain life for us. We can use words to pray, or pray in our thoughts, but we should not be disconcerted by the sense that our words are not quite right, that our thoughts are not enough, because our thoughts and words are not the measure of our prayers. When our thoughts and words are the measure and the totality of our prayers, then our prayers only define us. If prayer is fundamentally a stance towards God, then God defines our prayers. When our prayers are not only words and thoughts but a stance and an openness toward God, then God defines both our prayers and us, and then we begin to see ourselves more clearly, our real concerns are brought into sharper focus, and bringing our petitions to God becomes a way, not of demanding particular outcomes, but leaving our cares and concerns -our selves- to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10.31).
This kind of praying in faith is not a faith that expects or demands a certain answer, but it is a praying in faith that acknowledges our desires, and also acknowledges the God to whom we are oriented in a posture of profound gratitude and openness. Meister Eckhart (another medieval mystic) declared that “God is closer to me than I am to myself.” This God can be trusted to know my prayers beyond my feeble thoughts and words, and endorses an understanding of prayer as an orientation to the One who loves us, and understands us, far beyond our comprehension.
I want to read a column on prayer by Jason Michelli. Jason has a rare form of terminal cancer, and he is responding to Jeffrey Weiss’ editorial in USA Today in which Weiss is explaining his own ‘no thanks’ to cancer treatment. Jason’s column is entitled ‘Prayer “Works” (But not in the way so many suppose)’
Likely, you expect a clergyman to critique your appraisal of the Book of Job and to encourage you, as the TSA agent who recently squinted at the disparity between the pre-cancer face on my ID and the one in the flesh before her, that “prayer works.”
“I’ll pray for you to be healed” she whispered as she circled and checked things on my boarding pass.
With a terminal cancer of my own- mine’s in my marrow, as voracious as it is rare- I actually think you’re exactly right to point out how the Book of Job reveals the theological problem at the heart of how we so often speak of prayer. God, as the Book Job insists, is incomprehensible. As God says to Job, everything that is did not have to be, a reminder woven into the opening line of scripture “In the beginning…” We are, Job learns, contingent creatures. Our knowledge can never bridge the gap between us and our Creator. If this is true, you’re exactly right to caution against the way we speak of prayer working.
To put it more bluntly: Isn’t it ridiculous (and maybe even idolatrous) to think that through our supplications we can persuade God into doing something God might otherwise not do? You might be surprised to hear, Mr Weiss, that I take it as self-evident that the answer to that question is ‘Yes.’
The God of Job isn’t a god we can manipulate by spiritually-sanctioned means to do what we want. Too often when people tell me they’ll pray for me, the implication left unsaid is that God is otherwise not already with me or at work in me and that if I’m not healed then somehow their prayers didn’t work. Such an understanding of prayer is incompatible with the God of the Book of Job, a God who is at every moment the reason there is something instead of nothing.
Not only do I agree with you, Mr. Weiss, I think St. Paul would too.
After stating the obvious (none of us knows how to pray), St. Paul writes to the Romans that whenever we pray, no matter what it might look like, it’s not actually we who are praying. Rather God, the Spirit, prays in us and through us.
This is what gets missed by so many of the people who tell me they’re praying for me, but it’s something you missed too.
Prayer isn’t something we do. It’s something God does.
Instead of a practice we perform for results we’ve predetermined, when we pray to God, we’re prayed in by God.
God is the impetus behind our prayers as much as the object of them. The very wants and desires we pray, runs St. Paul’s argument, are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present God.
What’s this mean when you’re sick with stage-serious cancer and staring down the-house-always-wins odds?
St. Thomas Aquinas doubles-down on Paul’s point when he writes: “We should not say ‘in accordance with my prayer, God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that ‘God wills it to be a fine day, in accordance with my prayer.’”
God wills our prayers, says Aquinas, as much as God wills the fine day.
Let me put Aquinas’ point a bit more personally for the both of us:
We should not say in accordance with the TSA agent’s prayer, God wills that I should be healed of my cancer; we should say that ‘God wills that I should be healed of my cancer, in accordance with her prayer.
That’s no guarantee I’ll be healed, and if I’m not healed, there’s no explanation behind it of the sort Job’s churchy friends assumed. However, it is a guarantee that my desire to be healed, as well as the desire of all those praying for me, isn’t our desire alone or even originally. It’s a desire shared by- initiated by- the God who prays in us.
You’re dead on, as contingent creatures we can never know the why behind the Creator’s doings. If we could, then God would not be God.
But to your other suggestion, that God does not care about your friends’ prayers, I disagree. Not only does God care about your friends’ prayers, their prayers derive from and originate in God. Indeed it’s not strong enough to say God cares about your friends’ prayers. Their prayers are, in fact, a sign- a sacrament, as we say in the Church- of God’s love for you.`
Our prayers are a sign of God’s love. Our prayers are God’s thoughts prayed in us. That makes sense if we are created in the image of God, but it also makes sense that they are sometimes turned toward ourselves rather than God, when we remember that, along with Adam and Eve, we also have an inclination to choose for ourselves instead of God. That’s why this idea of prayer as a stance in which we live in openness to God is so fecund.
Our prayers are a sign of God’s love. That’s why we pray. God’s love is the primordial stuff of life and all of creation. God’s love was the reason God created. It is the root cause and sustaining force of our existence. We breathe God’s love when we breathe oxygen, and every breath is an unconscious prayer for life. We are nourished by God’s love when we eat the fruits of his good creation, and every mouthful we chew is an orientation toward God and his sustaining grace operational in our lives. Everything we do in gratitude for the gift and the gifts of life is that stance which is praying without ceasing.
Our prayers are a sign of God’s love. That’s why we pray. That’s why we pray when we are alone, because God loves us when we are alone. That’s why we pray when we get together, because God loves us when we are together. We are all brothers and sisters to the core, and praying together helps us experience our oneness, our love for each other, which is a tangible sign of God’s love for us. That’s why we pray about all the little things that matter to us, because God loves us, and our cares matter to him. That’s why we pray - for the Love of God.