When it comes to prayer, the faithful man or woman of God is confronted by a host of seeming contradictions. On the one hand, God respects human free will so much that he will allow a man or woman to freely reject him forever. And yet, so much of the way God provides for his creatures (food, shelter and clothing) is an inescapably and deeply tangled matrix of untold numbers of free human decisions. We are told that if we would have what we ask for in prayer, we must ask in faith. And yet, we are told that such faith may be as small as a mustard seed. We are told not to seek anxiously after food, clothing and shelter, since God providentially provides all these for us, just as he does the unreasoning birds of the air and the immobile lillies of the field. And yet we are told to lay all our cares upon him for he loves us; we are told to ask and to seek and to knock.
The blessing of these paradoxes is that it enables us to move beyond the God of formulas, the pagan god: The god whom we placate by a certain number of prayers, a monetary donation of a certain amount, or by striving to please God. Rather, it forces us to encounter the personal God, the good God, who loves us and ever seeks us whether we run away from him or run to him . . . or, in our pain and despair, simply wait for him in silence.
There is much about petitionary prayer that, I think, must lie ever beyond our grasp. Our understanding of petitionary prayer, it seems to me, must be like trying to grasp water. The more tightly we grip it, the less we grasp it. But we may float in it, and we may swim in it, and we may drink from it and be refreshed.
For petitionary prayer is nothing else than joining ourselves to God. We seek him, for he is good. We want his will, for it is our good. And he and he alone is worthy of our deepest selves, alone worthy of our deepest needs and desires, alone worthy of our ineffable darknesses and wounds. He and he alone will satisfy and quench, alone will give light and healing.
But this pathway is not easy, and the larger the crisis and hurt and pain, the more difficult it is. For in such times our need for assurance and hope is very large, large enough, heaven help us, to even crowd out God. But if we will simply lay these needs, this hurt, this pain on the altar of prayer, we can, even through tears, find our entry into the life of God himself. And there, where our heart is joined to God’s heart, there is where our petitionary prayer belongs. There where the fire of divinity enlightens and vivifies, where heart is joined to heart in Christ by the Holy Spirit, there we find peace and rest, whatever may be of our petitions.
And the wonder of it all is that, when we enter this ring of fire, we find there an unusual coinherence, a new capacity to bear one another’s burdens. We do not simply pray empathetically, though we do learn to suffer with those for whom we pray, but in our mutual identification in Christ, in a way I do not know rightly how to express, we pray for them as though we were them. We are united one to another in this prayer, in this heart of Christ, in a way of union wherein our lips are their lips, our prayers their prayers, and the love which God bestows on them is the love we receive. We weep not alone for our own failings and sins, but for theirs, we desire union with God not alone for ourselves but for them . . . as though we are this other for whom we pray. We are one in Christ, and when we pray for those others, that union is manifest in an ineffable and deep way. We are truly present with them in spirit, and if the Lord wills, those who pray and those for whom they pray can know and sense this presence.
In looking over the above, confessedly, I’m not sure I have said it accurately or rightly. I am grasping here through experiences I have no way to articulate. May the Lord preserve what is true and cast away the false.
And may he have mercy on us all and draw us ever closer to him.
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