In some ways, prayer is where the "rubber hits the road" in the Christian faith. For with prayer we are not simply talking about some discipling ourselves to Jesus, who is a great exemplar, but only a man. In prayer we are not simply talking about God as some kind of idea or ideal. In prayer we are beginning to "talk to" this God.
It may not be that we want a definition of prayer as simple, and apparently naive, as "talking to God," but when we begin to pray, we are acknowledging a reality. We are going beyond ideas, beyond concepts, and beyond fascination or longing. We are committing to action. In praying we are doing something the same as the person who says, "I choose to act in this way, because this is the way of Jesus." There is the giving of allegiance to more than an idea. We are committing to some kind of reality.
St. John of Damascus said, "To pray is to offer one's heart to God." In this we can see two things. Prayer goes beyond simply talking, and especially beyond mere asking. And we see that prayer is a kind of emotional commitment. It moves beyond intellectual assent.
For the person whose way of life is a-theistic, especially if they are ignorant of religious tradition, prayer must seem one of our major foolishnesses. What an infuriating naivete to ask a non existent God for help! Sometimes, when I listen to prayers from the congregation, I can only agree. When I am struggling with my doubts, or when I am overwhelmed by the enormity of the world's problems, how foolish a notion it seems to think that there is something or someone, who will intervene.... or even just listen. But this asking is not, first of all, asking. First of all, it is the cry of the human heart.
Prayer is the cry of the human heart. We can't help but pray in our frustrations and pain. To be human is to know our limitations. It is to be aware beyond mere instinct. It is to suffer.
We had a cat who lived with us 16 years. She had her way of telling us when she wanted a door open, and another way of telling us when she wanted food. She had her chosen spots for comfortable snoozing. When she wanted attention, and received none, she would sit between my wife and her keyboard, refusing to move until her demands were met. When Wendy was feeling down, the cat would climb into her lap to comfort her. It was a different way of settling down; as if she knew her need for comfort.
Prayer is the awareness that goes beyond all that awareness. Prayer is when there is no comforting cat. It is for the timne when our solitude is beyond talking with other people or soaking up the warmth of another body. There is a desire, a longing and perhaps, a pain for which there seems only to be God.
Perhaps asking is the least part of prayer. The saying of John of Damascus, "offering one's heart to God," teaches us that. Prayer is the admission of our regrets. We can be open and honest about pain, fear, failings and griefs. There is no telling anyone of some of the shame in my life. Who would ever listen without condemning me? Some professionally disconnected counsellor perhaps, but is this what I want- someone who doesn't care? But who would care enough, and understand enough, yet still love me? Who will love me, support me, agree with me when I own my faults, and yet minister me some forgiveness? People pour out their souls on daytime TV, in the presence of voyeurs, and are dehumanised by the experience, used by the vicarious needs of others. We need to be humanised again when we finally face our failings, not abused.
Prayer is the speaking out of our best intentions. In prayer we talk about what should be: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done... When we pray for others, we are asking for what should be. Even little children are asking for the messianic vision, for heaven on earth. A little older, and perhaps wiser, we see that much of the answer should be in ourselves. Our prayers of petition are in some sense a commitment to make ourselves part of the answer.When we can see no answer of which we can be a part, prayer is to remember what should be; what is right and just. Prayer is to persevere in that direction, despite there being no answer in sight, and despite the fact it seems there is no hope. Prayer is a trust that God's reality is worthwhile, and ultimately good, even when we can discern no way forward, and no ending to pain.
In "The Dark Knight" when there is surely no hope for the orange Guantanamo clad villians on the disabled and bomb laden boat, one man takes the bomb trigger which would destroy the other boat, and thus allegedly save him, and throws it overboard. At a few moments to midnight, at the time of greatest crisis, when all seems lost, he stands with and for those who are innocents, willing to sacrifice himself. This is an act of prayer. Prayer is stillness when nothing can be done, and prayer is action when it is required.
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