The school of prayer is not one from which one ever graduates. And it is, because of our sins, sometimes a most difficult course. Among the difficulties in this school is the mystery of petitionary prayer. We know the verses:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matthew 7:7-11)
And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?” So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:19-22)
Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8 )
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
These are among the very well-known verses Christians bring out with regard to petitionary prayer. But there is another set of verses, in many ways, it seems to me though I cannot say for sure, much more foundational, which frame our prayerful petitions:
Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name,
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily [supersubstantial] bread.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from [the] evil [one].
And normally in private prayers, we add, “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.” (A priest will usually instead say, “For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”)
When we think of petitionary prayer, we usually think in terms of specific requests: heal my mother, provide me a job, keep my children safe as they travel, and so forth. And that is right and holy and proper. But sometimes, and this was certainly the case in my evangelical background, petitionary prayer can become something like a shopping list: please do this, grant me that, and help me avoid this other. Prayer was considered “powerful” when one could present prayer requests which had been answered. Christians were considered “prayer warriors” the more often they could cite answered prayers. But when viewed from the perspective of the Lord’s Prayer, we are granted, if you will, a more cosmic view.
Thy Kingdom come
That is to say, all our requests are to be framed in the context of personal and corporate salvation. There is a phrase one often finds in traditional prayers, but not so much in present-day liturgies: “grant us that which is for our salvation,” or “grant my request if it be for my salvation.” The more intense is our need, the deeper our hurt, the stronger our confusion, this is a prayer most difficult to pray with an undivided heart. And thankfully, perfect purity is not absolutely required. The Lord hears us from our point of need and not from a requirement of saintly perfection. This, too, is our salvation. As we keep “banging on the doors of heaven,” the Lord saves us, purifies us, in our petitions.
It is that perspective of personal and corporate salvation that moves us from a childish naivete to a child-like faith. It humbles us, ensuring we are mindful of our self-centeredness and myopia. We begin to recognize that some things for which we ask are not for our salvation, or, even if they are, that God’s love and mercy are so deep and so powerful that even what appears to us to be “temptation” and “the evil one,” can be more truly salvific for us, for those closest to us, and for all the Church than the requests we present in faith to God. This is not to say that we will see this, even obliquely, in this life. Sometimes our suffering is so wrapped in salvific mystery that we cannot but see this deeper view until on the other side of death’s dividing line.
This realization is not necessarily comforting. At least not at first. It is just the condition of our mortal lives that our hurts and needs and desires are so intertwined with our loved ones, our enemies, perfect strangers, and so deeply embedded in our hearts, that any thought which does not include the full granting of our requests is so painful one may well feel overwhelmed. But as one continues to pray through these tear-filled and endless moments, one begins to see that truly, all our petitions are and ought to be pointed to the salvation of each and of all: Thy Kingdom come.
There is, then, when one comes to this point, a change in one’s mind, if not yet fully in one’s heart. One sees the sins and evil that have been done to those one loves so deeply, and sees, too, the sins and evil done by them and us, and the heart’s cry becomes “Make Thy good, Thy love, Thy mercy and kindness, to triumph over the sin and evil done to us, and that we do.” We invoke the Spirit to renew our hearts and minds, to heal us of our inner demons and the passions lodged so firmly in our hearts. We see the despair of those who are nearer to us than our own flesh, and we pray the light of hope into their hearts and minds. Thy Kingdom come.
And when we return to the Kyrie, pacing in the darkened corner away from the rest of the world, the woolen knots traveling through our fingers, the “Lord have mercy” becomes a call for light and peace and hope to enter our hearts and the hearts of all our loves, banishing the sin and darkness, the wounds and scars, so that in receiving light, we might become all light.
Lord, have mercy. Thy Kingdom come.