Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Problem With Prayer

I had yesterday the honor and privilege of speaking at the CYO Rainbow Conference hosted by the Archdiocese of Detroit. It was an enjoyable morning and afternoon of seeing nearly 1,5000 young Catholics drawn together to find camaraderie and prayerful support as they attempted to "Live for Him" as the conference theme proclaimed. My own role was to give two presentations addressing God's Job Description.

During my first presentation, one of the students asked me about prayer. "What," he asked, "should we pray for?" Unable to cede my beloved role as teacher, I posed the question back to him: "What should we pray for?" The young man gave all of the right answers: an end to abortion, respect for human life, vocations, the poor, etc.. These are, I assured him, marvelous things to pray for. Yet, I had to push him, is this really what we should pray for?

I have a feeling asking whether we should really pray for the aforementioned issues shocked my audience. Each week, don't we pray for these things and more when we offer our intercessions? When, then, shouldn't these young men and women make these issues and ideas the subject of their prayer life each day?

My response is pretty simple. Because, even though we should want all of these things, there are usually things that are of far more pressing concern in our lives than an "end to war" or "cessation of hunger." Very generally, I follow the sage advice of Herbert McCabe who counseled that we should pray our wants, even if it seems petty or silly. Many of our wants are very likely petty and silly, but we need to start where we are at. Over time and with with diligent attention, our petty and fragile wants will begin to fade and, beneath them, we'll start to uncover our true desires. By tapping into our truest desires, we will find both the courage and the energy to respond to those issues plaguing our world.

Think about it. A little over two years ago, I could barely run a mile. Now, I didn't wake up some morning and decide that I'd go out and run a marathon. I did decide to run a marathon, but I knew I had an awful lot of work and training to do. Thus, I resolved that on this day, I would do my best to run a mile. I did it. Two days later, I upped the mileage to 1.5 miles. Accomplished. Then two miles. Soon it was four, seven, and ten. Within a few months I was running half-marathons and then, by May, I participated in a full marathon. I reached my lofty goal not simply by trying to run the marathon but, rather, through the slow process of maturing as a runner.

This sounds totally obvious, I think. We generally don't start children with War and Peace or Calculus; we, instead, begin with children's stories and doing sums. We don't expect tykes to play for the NFL, but we do help them by showing them how to hold a football or swing a bat. Why, then, would we not expect that if we want to become good at prayer - good prayers - that we also need time?

I used to pray that my hair would come back. We saw, not long ago, why this was a disaster. I'm glad that I felt free enough to tell God, "Hey, I would like my hair back. I really, really want to have something to comb." As I brought this to prayer, as I offered it at the altar of God, I pretty quickly began to realize that I really didn't truly desire to have hair, or to have perfect abs, or to have a great car...these are nice things, even great things, but they weren't what I really desired. In a sense, I had to pray through my wants to get to my deep desires. This gives me great courage, because I very often come to prayer armed with a ton of wants and I'm grateful that I have this freedom before God because, only by being myself in front of the Creator, do I come to know who I really am and what my heart truly yearns for.

The problem with prayer, to my mind, is that we don't take it seriously. Why pray for Miss Eileen's sore knee when what you really want is tickets to the Superbowl? Sure, it's probably better that you pray for Miss Eileen...but if you don't really care about her knee, it's not really going to be much of a prayer. I guess that I'm saying that you should feel totally free to be a selfish twit when you show up to prayer, bringing along your list of individual desires. I suspect that if you do it right, you'll find yourself less encumbered by silly wants and more and more in touch with your deepest desires.

When it comes to bringing yourself before the Lord in prayer, it seems to me more prudent to show up to prayer with a knowledge of what you really want. Granted, you might have some pretty deranged wants. Yet if you bring these wants to prayer, you'll find them becoming somewhat more translucent and more revealing of ever-deeper desires that are under your surface wants.

Prayer, like any endeavor or relationship, must be matured and grown through. Don't set yourself too lofty a goal: set realistic expectations and be confident that you can bring before the Lord all of your wants. While you will probably discover that you don't really want what you think you want, there's no point in starting in any other place than where you're at.


Rebecca Randall said...

I think you're right on, here...too often, we avoid (even if unconsciously) voicing our true wants, and prayer is a privileged space in which to do this. However, I'm also of the mind that we--or I should just say "I"--spend far too much time "talking" of myself and my wants in prayer and not enough time simply listening for the voice or pull of God. I "get" that prayer is about acknowledging and voicing our deepest hungers and desires...but there seems to be a need for a kind of emptying of oneself so as to really open up space for God....

Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more, old friend. I would frame it by saying that when we pray - and thus avoid talking just to ourselves - there is an essential moment of emptying that takes place, a last gasp of the feeble 'wants' that are washed away and replaced by a deeper sense of our desires. As I said in the post, we have to start where we are at: most of us are totally wrapped up in superficial wants (hair, money, new car). It is only if we name our wants and hold them up to the Light that we'll see how flimsy they are and that what we really desire is something we can't even imagine.

Thanks! How are you keeping?

Karl said...

I think that most of us pray for things so far outside ourselves such as an end to war, and end to poverty, an end to abortion, etc.. yet what we most desire is to find God, know his will, or that we understand where God is in our lives. Intercessory prayer is good and "easy" but for most of us it doesn't touch what we most desire: a true relationship with God.

Karl J. Kiser, S.J.

Unknown said...


I think you're quite right. Too often we content with praying for big-ticket items that seem out of reach...but why? Perhaps it is because they are so big that we feel safe and secure in praying for something far off rather than risking disappointment with praying for something closer, something we really desire. The risk of prayer is that we fail to get what we want and get what we actually desire!

If what we really desire is a living relationship with God, then imagine just what might happen to those big-ticket items? If we become infect with a febrile love of God, we might act like a holy contagion in the world spreading this love near and far. Imagine how much more effective our pro-life agenda would be....

Thank you for your first posting (I think) ever to a blog. I hope you become a regular: many out there would benefit from your years of pastoral experience.

James M. Lang said...

Great thoughts on prayer. I used to feel that praying for yourself was selfish, and then, during a recent re-reading of the gospels, came across the parable about the judge and the "importunate" widow, who finally gets her way because she just won't stop bugging the judge. I thought this was such a wonderful way to remind us that we not only should we pray for what we want, but we should keep at it. I also love the image of God up there saying, "Oh for Pete's sake, I'll give you what you want if you'll just leave me alone for a few minutes." As a parent, I can really identify with that image of God.

Unknown said...

A great priest I knew said the essence of all prayer was discerning God'd will, then (the hard part) conforming your will to His....easier said then done. great piece Ryan