23 February 2010

Why do we pray?

1st Week of Lent (T): Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

What if we decided this morning—just this once—to openly defy our Lord and pray as if we were pagans? We could probably manage to sound like pagans at prayer. We might even look like pagans at prayer. But we probably couldn't pull of thinking and believing like pagans while we prayed. It's one thing to imitate a pagan and quite another to become one. Before we could successfully paganize our prayer we would have to understand the theology, the mythos, the psychology, everything that goes into the make up of someone who lives and dies, prays and sacrifices in opposition to the precepts of the Lord. But it's not enough to simply reject Christ's teaching and the guidance of the Church. Being a pagan is more complex and much more subtle than living as a non-Christian or as an anti-Christian. In teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus gives us a glimpse into one of the differences between the pagan's relationship to his deities and our relationship to the one God. If we were to decide this morning to pray as the pagans do, we would have to believe that our prayers might not be heard; that our prayers might be in vain; that our needs might not be met; that our health, our wealth, our lives rest on the reckless will of Fate, or Nature, or Fortune. Jesus teaches his disciples, “Do not be like [the babbling pagans at prayer]. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

If the pagans of Jesus' day babbled at prayer, attempting to gain the favor of their fickle gods, then what is it that we do in prayer that distinguishes us from them? Why isn't Christian prayer just pagan babbling using a different vocabulary? The difference that matters is this: we do not pray in order to appease God, or to bargain with Him, or to cajole Him into changing His mind. We do not perform magical rites in order to gain control of God, or to summon Him before us to explain the mysteries of the universe, or to help us find buried treasure. He is not a wood sprite, or a water nymph, or a mountain spirit. Nor, for that matter, is He an impersonal Unmoved Mover, or an abstracted First Cause. Our God is our Father, a father who knows all that we need before we ask. What bargain could we strike with someone who knows us better than we know ourselves? What kind of father would subject his children to capricious fortune, to stultifying fate?

If we do not bargain or appease or cajole with our prayers, and if our Father already knows our needs, then why do we bother praying at all? By definition, it seems, Christian prayer is nothing more than vain babbling! Perhaps we are more pagan than we want to admit. And this would be true except that Christian prayer is first and foremost an exercise in transforming the ones who pray. Prayer changes us not God. By asking for what we need, even though God already knows what we need, we establish and nurture the deepest roots of our relationship with our Father: humility. By asking for what we need and receiving His gifts with thanksgiving, we feed, strengthen, and grow our obedience to His will and thrive by participating more intensely in His divine nature. 

And this is why the Word was made flesh: so that we might come to the Father perfect as He himself is perfect. Isaiah reports the Lord saying, “[My word] shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” He sent His word among us with a purpose. Not to frighten us with threats of punishment, or beat us into submission, or bribe us with promises of fabulous wealth. He sent His word among us to love us and to return us to Him in love. We do not have to consult drugged-out oracles, or read the entrails of sacrificed animals to know our Father's will for us. We pray, “Your will be done. . .” and give Him thanks and praise. His word will achieve its end. And that end is our salvation.

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  1. Anonymous7:00 PM

    We pray because our Lord told us to. And he told us that it works! Your description of prayer does not seem to take account intercession from the Saints or any intercession. Why ask for prayers for a loved one unless you thought it would work? I'm not asking you to pray for me, so that you can be transformed! I'm asking you to pray for me because I need a job! I'm not asking to be transformed I want to put money on the table! There is nothing wrong with praying for that.

  2. Anon.,

    I said that the transformation of the one who prays is the "first and foremost" effect of praying not the only effect.

  3. Anonymous3:56 PM

    First of all, one cannot even pray without the Holy Spirit. So, in the Holy Spirit of God, we have mercy upon others, we pray, we ask, we seek, we forgive, etc.
    Amen! Jesus said, pray unceasingly! For others and self!
    Lissette, O.P.

  4. This is so beautiful! Posting to Facebook right away (even though I'm way behind on my Google Reader queue!)...