Anyone familiar with the message of La Salette recognizes the call to prayer as one of the major elements emphasized there. Like all the basic themes of Our Lady's message, this call to prayer has its basis in the New Testament. Ultimately, it is part of the drama of the gospels, leading us back to the person of Jesus Christ. Every Christian, then, finds himself or herself grappling with prayer's place in life.
Beginning to write about prayer is a lot like beginning to pray: one approaches the enterprise with fear and trepidation.
First, the fact that prayer is such a basic part of Christian living (and, we might add, of human endeavor in general) makes the matter difficult rather than easy.
Secondly, one is only too aware of one's unworthiness and limitations. This unworthiness with which we often approach God in prayer parallels my own thought: “Who am I to write on prayer?” Must I be either saint or fool? If so, it must be the latter. But let me say, I attempt this simply because Our Lady of La Salette also said, “Make this known…”
Finally, prayer is often termed a “problem.” One reason for this is the fact that if prayer is truly a basic part of our life, it will share in the growth and changes that take place there. Such life-changes are often experienced in feelings of uneasiness, for example, with long-standing friends.
The uneasiness we feel in prayer also often arises from a recognition of our own incompleteness, our changing, and our wonder at that change. Even as I write, I am aware that I pray (and conceive of prayer) differently now from the way I did five years ago. Perhaps I would even like the chance to qualify my thoughts by the time this is put into print! But I want you to know that I pray these words will be of service in some small way. And I trust God will honor that prayer.
I would like to make three points. They will be seen as the answers to three questions:
1) What is prayer?
2) What might it mean to “pray well”? and
3) What does the experience of prayer tell us about our own experience of growth and change?
What is prayer? Well, there have been many definitions, each with its own emphasis. Before you go on, you might pause and try to answer the question for yourself.
I would like to suggest simply that prayer is consciously relating ourselves to God. Now, a philosopher might say we are related to God as our origin and sustainer. A theologian might say that we are related to God in the mystery of Jesus Christ, who has saved us. The person who prays, however, is related to God as present here and now, recognizes the truth of a living and loving God, and gives witness to that relationship. Simply, it is the way we choose to spend time with God, the way we build and tend our relationship with Him.
If we take such an approach to prayer, we see that it is actually a model of what the Christian life is all about.
Our entire life, beginning and end, conscious and unconscious, is meant for union with God. In prayer, we make that explicit. We experience in prayer all the struggle and frustration of the distance that separates us from this union; but we also experience the joy of the foretaste of that union. Depending upon which particular experience is emphasized in our own praying, we will find ourselves approaching prayer with eagerness or
When speaking of any relationship, we are immediately aware that there are two persons involved. So it is in prayer. There is myself and God. Prayer cannot ignore either of these. When I pray, I need to bring my whole self before God. It is not a matter of bringing the best part, or the person I would like to be – but the person I am, as fully as I know myself. I am called to see all that I am in relation to God. In this encounter, I do not remain unchanged.
If prayer is truly a dialogue, and not merely a monologue, all that happens there does not depend on me. In fact, the experience of praying lets us enter into the truth of God's initiative. With St. John, we can affirm, “This is what love is: not that we have loved God,
but that he has loved us” (1 John 4:10). With St. Ignatius, we realize that all that happens in prayer is God's gift. So, part of our prayer will be listening. Besides telling God who we are, listing our needs or expressing our gratitude, we will be attentive to God telling us who we are, and who God is.
One thing we discover about God is the awesomeness mentioned at the beginning of this article. In Christian prayer this awesomeness is not simply that of the Psalms, where the one who prays stands before the
Creator, the All-powerful God, but is the awesomeness of discovering that this same God is the One who loves me fully and unconditionally, as expressed in the person and event of Jesus Christ. The unworthiness and sin I perceive within myself is always met by Love.
It is also Jesus who reveals to us the scandal of God's own powerlessness and our freedom. Prayer is an invitation from God — an invitation in grace which we are free to accept or reject. Such an invitation is most clearly symbolized by Jesus Crucified. It is here that we are given the simple invitation to life: God stands powerless before us — He can do no more.
Will we accept this love; will we see ourselves offered life in the very event of Jesus' death? It occurred to me recently that this was perhaps the felt, unexpressed reasoning behind the urgings of priests and nuns in my grammar school days to pray before a crucifix. What better way to begin to get in touch with the love God offers uniquely to me — to each one of us — in an invitation that awaits a free response.
What does it mean, then, to pray well? The two words that come immediately to mind are honesty and steadfastness.
We have spoken of prayer using the model of a human relationship. But there is something unique about our relationship with God. He is the One from whom we need hold nothing back, the One who has already offered us complete acceptance.
Yet it is precisely in prayer that we are tempted to hold back. It is as if God would hear us or grant our requests if we present to him only our "goodness" or our joy, little realizing what a poor gift we offer in offering only half our selves.
If we think about it, such a practice proceeds from a pagan attitude about God — that he is appeased by a show of virtue, a ritual that hardly touches our lives. The more I bring only a part of myself to prayer, the more I lose sight of God in all the other areas of my life. When I bring myself completely before God, there is the possibility and beginning of wholeness. I need to bring my frustrations, my sufferings, my failures, my sin before God, to be seen in the light of his love — for my sake ... for His sake.
Honesty in prayer can be a real struggle. The very things we bring to prayer, God asks us to face with the help of his grace. How can we bring our sin before God, without claiming his forgiveness and without hearing the call to conversion? How can we express our needs without being called to see them in the light of gospel values? How can we bring our pain, and refuse to seek healing?
I see this powerfully expressed in Jesus' command to pray for our enemies. I am not able to pray for an enemy without soon realizing that I need to change that particular situation.
Jesus' "Who do you say I am?" asks us to see ourselves honestly as disciples. His "Do you love me?" asks us truly to serve his people. His "Who touched me?" asks us truly to see ourselves dependent upon him for healing.
The honesty about which we have spoken is directly related to the need for Steadfastness. Our prayer, our relationship with God can only flourish with regularity and commitment. We seem to learn eternal truths slowly.
Commitment in prayer lets us know the God who, though eternal, reveals himself in time. Steadfastness is that quality that St. Paul notes when he advises his people to "pray always. (1 Thess 5:17)" Again we see that prayer itself becomes a model for the total Christian life.
Our Steadfastness in prayer lets us see that God is the Steadfast One, and our own commitment is both his gift and our response. Steadfastness in prayer lets our lives slowly be formed by the prayer relationship, prayer itself forming a center for our activity, rather than being one activity we try to fit in with all the others. Finally, Steadfastness in prayer helps us to grow in the life guided by God's own Spirit,
Praying and Changing
This brings us to our final point. Much has been written recently about the stages of life. Each stage has its own characteristics, and the change that takes place is both desired and dreaded. The movement into each stage is marked by crises, and this cannot help but have an effect on our prayer. But I also believe that the reverse is true: prayer itself can have an effect on the growth process.
Adolescence, for example, is a time of great change, confusion and struggle. The rebellion against authority has to have its effect on the adolescent's prayer. It is during this time that many stop attending Mass or participating in formal prayer.
But prayer can also be a dynamic experience for the adolescent, helping to make this a time of grace and to show that the struggle is not an end in itself. It is the time when the person of Jesus and his story can become a living reality, as some of those "hard questions" of the gospel become very real to the young pray-er.
In adulthood we can become too busy to pray. On the other hand, prayer can be an immense source of strength, providing clarification of our values and challenging our behavior.
More stages could be suggested, but the point I am making is that our prayer will be both a sign of what is happening in our life, and the stage upon which we can meet the challenges offered in the normal pattern of development. As Christians we are challenged to enter into this normal human development, and realize at the same time that God's love and gifts are not tied to any such pattern.
This calls us to the practical virtue of patience — patience with ourselves in our own attempts at prayer, and patience with those we love who may be embarked on quite a different struggle.
I have kept this article general, believing that what is said here can be applied broadly. Also, I have written this with private prayer in mind, because the very reading of this article will be by you as a single individual. But the same dynamics can be seen in public prayer, whether in prayer groups, or in the Church community gathered in Eucharist around the Lord's table.
May you come to know more fully the unique gift God has given you in prayer. “All of us, gazing on the
Lord's glory with unveiled faces, are being transformed from glory to glory into his very image by the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).