Monday, March 21, 2011

Some Thoughts On Prayer

As I move toward a week's break due to an impending family vacation, I thought I would take the next few days to consider something vital to the life of every Christian, yet something about which it is difficult to speak. I am helped along on this arduous task with some theses offered at the latest addition to the old roll of links.

I have always considered my own position on prayer as rooted in St. Paul's statement, "Pray without ceasing." Yet, even here, we encounter more questions than answers, stumbling blocks, and hazards. My own sense is that St. Paul's contradictory claim, made in the letter to the Romans, that we do not know how to pray, is as true as his insistence that we are to pray always, in all circumstances.

At the heart of the matter, prayer is both simple, and most mysterious, unfathomable, impossible, irrational thing imaginable. As Meyers writes at one point, prayer is the heart of the gospel, the freedom we have been granted by God to speak to God. It is a freedom that requires discipline, however. At the heart of prayer, at the heart of the gracious gift in which we approach the throne of the Creator, stuttering and stammering, unable to articulate our most heart-felt need, lies the reality that only as we grasp our utter inability to pray have we understood what prayer is about. We cannot do it on our own. We would be unable, through the most powerful will, the most humble words of penitence and plea for access, to gain a hearing no matter our righteousness, no matter our virtue.

Prayer is a gift of God's grace. At the heart of the mystery of redemption lies this new reality, this part of the new creation - God has given us the tools to be heard by God. God wants to hear our prayers. God wants that relationship, wants us all, at all times and in all circumstances, to speak our most secret fears, to admit our deepest hurts, to live in the wounds of this life in the full faith that they do not have power over us.

Prayer is surrender. It is surrender to the idea that it is we, either as individuals or as the gathered Church, who pray. It is surrender to the idea that what too often prompts our prayers - our fears for ourselves or those we love; the needs of those who are sick, who suffer, who are alone, in prison, who are left and forgotten - is the reason we approach God. Prayer is surrender of any sense that "I" or "We" are the center of our lives. We cannot pray until we have learned to die.

This contradiction - we are to pray without ceasing, yet we do not know how to pray - is rooted in the very teachings of Jesus. His disciples asked him to instruct them in prayer. He then uttered two words that are impossible, meaningless, blasphemous - "Our Father". Quite apart from contemporary ideological discussions on the word choice, which are important as a matter of communal reflection on our own brokenness, and should always be a part of our prayer life, the opening petition of the Lord's Prayer already contains within it both the honest humility of the sinner and the boldness of faith through grace; approaching the throne of God and daring to speak in that way, to address the unknown and unknowable Creator as "Father" is to declare the mystery of salvation in two short words, to live out the possibility presented to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We do not know how to pray. We must pray at all times. We are to pray in this way, reflecting freedom and newness of life. We are to pray in the faith and hope of the grace of God, calling upon God with the boldness that comes from faith, the humility that comes from faith, the love that flows from God.

It is this mystery, this necessary part of each moment of our lives, living with the boldness that brings the New Creation yet to come present as we dare to embrace the promise offered in the resurrection, our promise made in baptism. Prayer is part of making the Kingdom of God real, here and now, the most baffling thing imaginable.

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