I never thought I would write a book on prayer. The Lord knows I am no mystic. In fact, given there are three ways to become a saint – heroic virtue, mysticism and martyrdom – the only way I’ll make it is the last. I share the usual desolations, lack of discipline and focus that make my prayer life a very humble offering to God each day.
Why Bother Praying? emerged from the responses to my earlier book, Where the Hell is God? I discovered that others had very different ideas about prayer. They are fully entitled to them, indeed they must follow their own informed consciences, but the image of God behind some of their positions was frightening to me. It all came down to my saying we should ‘stop praying for rain’. For the record, I am delighted if others want to pray about the weather. I can’t, because if God is a big meteorologist in the sky, then he seems very bad at it. We go from a drought to a flood in a matter of days!
People outlined the reasons they are not troubled when their prayer is not answered, or when things get demonstrably worse. Some were familiar to me:
- “We were praying about the wrong things because God knows what we need rather than what we want.”
- “God has a much greater plan for all creation and we cannot hope to see the bigger picture.”
- “It is only in retrospect that we can see what God was intending by what he did or failed to do.”
- “Prayer is always answered, just that we can’t see how.”
- “We may not like it, but sometimes God just says ‘no’ to whatever it is we are asking.”
- “God’s answer to all prayers is Jesus Christ – end of story.”
- “God does not listen to selfish prayers.”
Other people wrote to me with sincerely held views, but I found them less than helpful.
- “Not enough people must have been praying for that intention.”
- “We have not prayed long enough or hard enough for God to hear us.”
- “We just don’t have enough faith.”
- “God is testing us by not answering our prayer to see how much we love him.”
- “God says ‘no’ to keep us humble so we just rely on God’s grace every day.”
- “God does not listen to sinners; you have to have a pure heart for your prayers to be heard.”
- “Unless you do penance God will not answer your prayer because you are not serious.”
What image of God emerges from these ideas?
In Where the Hell is God? I came up with a short definition of intercessory prayer: “Prayer asks an unchanging God to change us to change the world.” Some correspondents told me, “This doesn’t end up saying very much at all.” This surprised me. In any and every important way, I do not change easily or quickly, so asking God to change me is not an insubstantial matter; it is grace building on nature.
All this had me thinking more broadly about prayer and how we might answer the question, “Why bother praying?”
I came to eight conclusions.
- One of the reasons some of us give up on prayer is we’ve not been introduced to its riches. Prayer is making space for God to love us, for us to experience that, and then through the community of faith, to have the courage to return the compliment. Prayer changes lives.
- The best of prayer engages our vivid imaginations and a vast array of biblical images to develop ideas reflecting various personal theologies for God to suit every season under the sun. One size does not fit all, and this enables each of us to enter more deeply into a relationship with God who accompanies us through our lives.
- Prayer is not just about asking for something. The Psalms are a workshop showing us how to explore other responses: praising and giving thanks; crying out in lamentation; affirming our trust and faith; singing of our salvation and simply waiting upon the Lord.
- Building on the Scriptures, our Christian heritage, has given us a supermarket of ways and means to God. There are schools of prayer that have connected many people to something that has stood the test of time and helped millions not just to have deeper prayer lives, but to transform communities.
- No matter what kind of prayer we find helpful, Christian prayer is centred on Jesus. Through him, we are invited into a loving and saving relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit that has consequences for how we live in this world and the next. In this relationship, nothing is wasted in our often complex lives. We are invited to grow from where we are, as we are, to realise our full potential. Prayer helps us face down fear and live in hope. And when we feel distant from Jesus, guess who’s moved? Our prayer is not about appeasing an angry God. There is nothing that can, or will, stop God loving us.
- Because Christian faith is personal but never private, public prayer matters because I am not just saved as an individual; we are saved as the People of God. We need each other to rise to that invitation as we come together to pray in an assembly that stands before mystery in awe and wonder, is hospitable and expresses ancient faith in a contemporary world. In the sacraments, God’s greatness meets our frailty.
- Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the saints show us how it’s done and always lead us to Christ. And most of us need all the help we can get! We need role models who have said ‘yes’ as they made their own pilgrimage of faith and hung in there when the going got tough, especially when it touched their own personal, spiritual and sometimes material poverty.
- Prayer comes at a price. It is not a spiritual bon-bon. We do not pray simply to bring about our salvation in heaven. We pray to stay on mission with Christ in the world. Our lives may be the only Bible some people will ever read. Our living of the virtues and our commitment to justice and peace may be the only sacraments some people will ever witness and celebrate. Though we all fail, prayerful people are traced with Christ’s life as a result of the encounter with him and so are compassionate, hopeful, joyful, grateful, forgiving and loving. The world needs prayerful people more than ever before.
In Why Bother Praying? I have also included a few gems of wisdom that have helped me to keep persevering.
My novice master, Fr Des Dwyer SJ, is a very wise and compassionate man. Like me, he is an extrovert. He understood what I meant when I said I was sure most of the Church’s traditions and prayer practices seemed to be “the revenge of introverts”. Sensing that it can be easy to give up or cut corners when the way seems unnatural and too hard for little benefit, he used to say: “each day some prayer, any prayer, is better than no prayer. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Rather than give up on prayer, do what we can, from where we can, as we can.”
Another piece of advice is a direct re-working of one of Jesuit founder St Ignatius’ rules: if it helps do it, if it doesn’t, don’t. Some things are essential for Catholics: praying over the Bible and celebrating the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Apart from being the oldest ways for Christians to pray, they bring God’s presence to us in concrete terms, here and now. My concern is that some people in their enthusiasm for a particular way, can insist that this is the onlyway. It’s what Patrick O’Sullivan SJ calls the “hardening of the oughteries”: we ought to be this, we must do that. There are many ways in and out of God. If it helps, do it; if it doesn’t, don’t.
While there are wise guidelines, there is only one absolute rule: is what I am doing enabling me to love God, love my neighbour and love myself? Love of self has had a mixed history in the Christian story, but it’s essential for prayer and mission. Self love is often confused with self adoration. Nothing could be further from Jesus. If we have no sense of our own self worth, our own dignity and the personal love God has for each of us, it is impossible for us to give the same to others and to claim from others the dignity we deserve. Jesus shows us by the way he loved his Father, us and himself, that true love always involves sacrifice. If we love our self in the right way, we have the self control to forgo those things that are most destructive in our lives, and we have the generosity to do for others the things that will enrich their lives.
So before we pray, we better sort out who and what we love.
Throughout Why Bother Praying?, I explore these things, with a host of examples and many stories, funny and sad, and I hope, with a light touch.
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Richard Leonard SJ is a visiting professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, and directs the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting. To learn more about his books Why Bother Praying? and Where the Hell is God? please visit www.mosaicresources.com.au. Aurora has one copy of Why Bother Praying? to give away. Send an envelope with name and postal address to “Why Bother Praying?” – Aurora, PO Box 756 Newcastle 2300 before the end of February and the winner will be randomly selected.