Yesterday was a rollercoaster ride: far too much to do and too little time to do it. You don’t need to hear the details. One consequence was that I “missed” my afternoon Rosary interval. Being on the go with mundane things can do that to me. Worse, I didn’t even realize it until the day was spent.
There are people who scoff at prayer. Remarkably, many of them are believers of a sort. (What sort, I’ll leave to you.) Their arguments boil down to a small group of contentions:
- God knows everything, right? So He already knows what you’re going to ask Him for.
- Prayer can’t change God, so whether you get what you request is unaffected by your prayers.
- If you’re “in” with God, your prayers are unnecessary; if you’re “on the outs” with Him, they’re pointless.
The above characterize prayer as an attempt to change reality. That completely misunderstands prayer and what it’s for.
A brief, brilliant exchange from the 1993 movie Shadowlands, about the relationship between C. S. Lewis and his wife Joy, says more about the true nature of prayer than most theologians manage in the whole of their lives:
Harry: Christopher can scoff, Jack, but I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.
C. S. Lewis: That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.
We who pray don’t do so in the hope of “changing God.” We do so in the hope that it will change us: our awareness, our priorities, and the yawning void within each of us that we are unable to fill by our own actions. That void can only be filled by God. It is God, no one and nothing else, that gives human life meaning.
Ponder that for a moment.
Consider the prerequisites for sincere prayer:
- Acknowledgement of God;
- Acceptance of His will;
- Exterior silence.
Even ritual prayers, written by others, require those conditions to be worthwhile – and here, we come up against the perversities of language, imposed upon us by our consciousness of the passage of time. “Worthwhile” makes prayer sound like an investment, something incurred in the hope of a return. And to be candid, petitionary prayer of the direct and immediate sort – i.e., prayer for the relief of a temporal need such as poverty or ill health – does have a bit of that cast. Even so, the coda of all prayer is Thy will be done, just as Christ said:
After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. [Matthew 6:9-13]
It’s not a negotiation. It’s an acknowledgement of His supremacy over all things, including one’s own circumstances. But if His will must trump ours, as the scoffer says, what’s the point?
The point is the attainment and maintenance of those three prerequisite conditions. With those conditions in place, we can hope to hear His voice, and learn of His will for ourselves.
Slam that point:
We don’t pray to change God.
We certainly don’t pray to hear our own voices.
We pray in the hope that we’ll hear Him.
To hear, one must be silent. — Ursula Le Guin
Quoth Robert Cardinal Sarah:
First of all, it may be helpful to recall what asceticism is. This word is not praised to the skies by our consumer society–far from it!…Asceticism is a means that helps us to remove from our life anything that weighs it down, in other words, whatever hampers our spiritual life and, therefore, is an obstacle to prayer. Yes, it is indeed in prayer that God communicates his Life to us and manifests his presence in our soul…And prayer is essentially silence.
There is more wisdom in the above than I could express in a million words of my own. Silence is the great need of our time. There’s so much noise, so many voices clamoring for attention, and so many pleas and demands from so many sources, that the bombardment can prevent us from hearing our own thoughts. I wrote about it in a fit near to despair:
“The worst” is the noise. The perpetual din. The endless screaming, wailing, moaning, hectoring, begging, and cursing. The ceaseless demands from politicians. The carping from the unsatisfied. The orations of the world-savers. The unending gimme gimme gimme of those who want something they can’t get for themselves and will never realize that no amount of free stuff will make them happy. And of course, the “media” of all varieties, every one of which insists that we must all stay right-up-to-the-minute on What’s Happening Now. Yes, including the bloody Internet.
The great need of our time is silence. We’re starved for it. The din is making us crazy. We’re unable to cope with its relentlessness. And the greatest of all ironies is that in nearly every case, we collaborate in our own deprivation.
Only silence makes it possible to hear clearly and distinctly. But in a regime of silence, what could we possibly hear? When all the external voices are silent, whose voice comes through? What might He be saying?
That is the great challenge of temporal life to the believer. And though you style yourself an atheist, your need for silence is no less than his.
Many an unbeliever has found God in silence. He who has managed to exclude the noise from without will often hear the “still, small voice” that emanates from within. For some, nothing else can do the trick. Evidence and reasoning are impotent against the convictions of one determined to disbelieve…but His voice is another matter.
The precondition of silence can be obtained through sincere prayer. Indeed, that is prayer’s highest objective: to exclude the voices from without that persistently drag us away from God, so that we may hear the voice from within. And that voice’s first statement to you will be simple yet profound: the fact that lies beneath all other facts:
May God bless and keep you all.