07 March 2006

Pagan babbling, Christian prayer

1st Week of Lent 2006 (T): Isa 55.10-11; Matthew 6.7-15
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Hear it!
Do you babble like the pagans or do you pray as Christ taught us to pray? To babble like a pagan is to rattle off memorized lines like a fifth grader streaking through a recitation of a bad poem for an English class. To babble is to believe that those memorized lines of bad poetry are magically effective, some sort of voodoo that gives one control of God. Pagan babbling is also almost always about “just getting it done,” a formal “doing one’s duty,” pro forma obligation fulfillment so that the goodies may now start to fall from heaven. Christians cannot pray this way because there is nothing magical, merely formal, or hurried about how we talk to our Father.

We do not pray to change God’s mind. We do not pray in order to negotiate with God. Our prayers are not spells that if perfectly performed guarantee perfect results. For us, to pray is to ask God for good things, to offer Him praise and thanksgiving, to intercede for others with Him, to bless and adore Him, and to be still, quiet in His presence, waiting on His fertile Word.

St. Gregory of Nyssa says of prayer, “Prayer is intimacy with God […]For the effect of prayer is union with God[…]” What we do in prayer is bring ourselves as a living sacrifice to the Lord. We give ourselves up so that we might be made holy in Him. We turn our hearts over to Him so that we will be made proper instruments of His living Word. We surrender our will, humble ourselves in a pure act of creaturely awe. Prayer is the perfect answer to the Lord’s gratuitous summons to live with Him now, to participate fully in His divine nature forever. We cannot babble nonsense because we pray His Word for us, in us, through us.

God speaks to Isaiah, telling him that like giving seed to one who sows seed and bread to one who eats bread, the Lord will give His Word to those who will speak His Word so that that Word will not return to Him as wasted sound, mere breath but that it will do His will, doing all those things that the Lord wills it to do. In other words, we are given prayer so that we might know and do God’s will. The words we speak in prayer, if we pray in His Spirit, are, in fact, The Word—not just any old words, but The Word given to us, planted in our hearts to produce excellent fruit, to spread like abundant vines, and to be shared copiously with any and all.

Christ the Word made flesh teaches us to pray, a particular prayer and a model of praying. He teaches us to call God our Father, the One Who made us from nothing. We bless His Name, so that we can be living witnesses to His blessings. We pray that His kingdom will come for us and through us, working in the world as agents of His Spirit, members of His body to do what His Word asks of us. We pray for what we need not because He doesn’t know our needs, but because by asking for what we need we are truly humbled—not degraded—but made better aware of our dependency on Him for everything we need. We ask to be forgiven in the same way that we forgive. A daring prayer! And we ask for protection against temptation and evil.

None of this is babble. It is the Word given to us so that our words glorify Him, so that our hearts and minds are shown His love for us, so that we are made ready for our lives with Him now and in glory forever.


  1. Anonymous9:10 PM

    Father, I'm going to have to disagree with you slightly. Sometimes when I pray, I get distracted. Other times, my heart is not really in it, and I'm doing it because it's time, or I'd made a previous promise to God.

    I believe at those times, God appreciates the prayers because I'm not looking to get something out of it. I'm doing it specifically for God.

  2. Anonymous3:14 PM

    Excellent, Father...just like always.

    I was wondering something: Would you consider putting our Canadian Province up there amidst your list of Links? We don't want to "sheep-steal" vocations from the States. HOWEVER, if some who, like me (a native New Yorker) would like to come north, we'd be more than tickled to death, especially because we're trying to attract more native english-speakers in order to reach out to the Canada beyond Quebec.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work!
    Fr. Martin Farrell, op
    Dominicain University College

  3. Anonymous1:56 PM

    I am a pagan, and I hardly call reciting long and thought out prayers of worship in ancient languages babbling.

  4. Dear Pagan,

    Me either.

    Long prayer in a ancient language aren't the problem. The problem-- at least the problem Jesus is addressing in the reading--is that the pagans of his day believed that their gods heard them precisely b/c they prayed long prayers. Jesus wanted his disciples to undertand that merely praying long-winded prayers to God doesn't guarantee that they have a righteous relationship with God. A good, holy relationship with God takes more than lengthy, formal prayer.

    Fr. Philip

  5. Fr. Martin,

    I will gladly add the Canadian Province to my list. I am gone for a week, so I will do it when I get back.

    We recently had a visit from one of our provincial friars, Fr. Louis Roy. He shared with me a quote of mine that you shared with him! Where did you get it?

    Also, I want to chat with you about the Liturgical Institute.

    Fr. Philip