27 February 2012

Prayer: Concerning ourselves with God's own Self and Destiny (partial reprise)

Tomorrow's Gospel includes Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer. As we continue to focus on the basic themes of Lent it is only appropriate that the Church looks at what prayer is and reminds us of Jesus' own instruction in it --- what was primary and what followed naturally. In Lent one of the things we attempt to do is die to self in ways which make us more open to God's presence, God's Word, God's own hallowing of his name within us and in our world. We fast in ways which help us set aside our more superficial needs; we open ourselves to the love of God which we allow ourselves to savor so that we might be profoundly nourished and God's own will be done, God's own life be fulfilled in and with us. Our Lenten journey reminds us that genuine spirituality is forgetful of self, that it "gets out of the way" and lays aside self-consciousness. In tomorrow's gospel, Jesus (via Matt) provides a model of prayer which assists in this. It is a model of prayer in which we concern ourselves first and last with God's own needs, and with being there FOR HIM! We know it as the Lord's Prayer

In the first three petitions (and the invocation too, though that is a topic for another time!) we concern ourselves with God's very self (holiness and name refer to God's own self, not to mere characteristics or tags); we ask that he might be powerfully present in our world (because both name and the hallowing he is refer to a powerful presence which creates and recreates whatever it is allowed to touch and make holy). With the second petition especially, we open ourselves to his sovereignty, that is, to his very selfhood and life as it is shared with his creation. God assumes a position of sovereignty over that creation when his life is truly shared and that creation achieves genuine freedom in the process, but the reign or kingdom of God refers to God's own life once again --- this time as a covenantal or mutual reality. And, with the third petition in particular, we open ourselves to the will of God --- to the future and shape of a reality which is ordered by his sovereignty and fulfilled by his presence.


Now, it is true that God possesses what is called aseity. That is, he is completely self-sufficient and in need of nothing and no one. But that is only one part of the paradox that stands at the heart of our faith. The other side of the paradox is that our God is One who has determined to need us; from the beginning, indeed, from all eternity, God has chosen not to remain alone. He creates all that is outside himself and he summons it (continuing the process of creation) to greater and greater levels of complexity until from within this creation comes One who will be his true counterpart and partner in creation. At bottom this is a call to share in God's very life. In fact, it is the ground of an existence which can only be fulfilled when it shares in the Divine life and God himself becomes all in all!

All of Scripture attests to this basic dynamic, whether cast in terms of creation or covenant. All of Scripture is about God's determination to share his very life with us, and his creation's capacity in the Spirit to issue forth in, or become his own unique counterpart in the fulfillment of this plan. When God's plan is fulfilled, when his very life is shared to the extent he wills, everything he creates reaches fulfillment as well, but it is the human vocation in particular to allow this to become real in space and time. And afterall, isn't this what prayer is truly all about: allowing God's plans to be realized in his creation; cooperating with his Spirit in ways which let his own life be made PERSONALLY real here and now so that EVERYTHING acquires fullness or completion (perfection) of life in God?

Unfortunately, one of the most pernicious problems I run into, whether in myself or in my work as a spiritual director is the occasional inability of myself or of directees to "get out of the way" of the Spirit or to "forget self" in prayer. Prayer seems always to be about us, our problems, our sinfulness, our needs and concerns in ways which sometimes contribute to our own self-centeredness. While I am NOT suggesting we neglect this side of things in our prayer, I am suggesting that there are ways to pray these concerns which are NOT self-centered. (Note, the key here is in praying these concerns rather than merely praying about these concerns. Sometimes we have to silence conversation about concerns and simply live them in our prayer as we give our whole selves to God for his own sake.) I think this is part of what Jesus is getting at in tomorrow's gospel when he reminds us that God knows what we need before we ask him! It is certainly mirrored in the form of the Lord's prayer and the priority of the invocation and petitions. If we open ourselves humbly to God in prayer, the sinfulness, needs, concerns, etc will be part of that but the focus will not be on these.

Because of this, one of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves in checking in on our prayer occasionally is, "what kind of experience was this for God?" Ordinarily this puts a full stop to the sometimes problematical self-centered focus and chatter about ME in prayer which can occur, and puts the focus back where Jesus clearly lived it himself --- on God and the way in which God wills to be present to and for us. What today's Gospel gives us in this model of prayer is a sense that contrary to much popular thought and practice otherwise, prayer is really the way we give or set aside our lives for another, namely, for God and his own Selfhood and destiny. And while it is absolutely true that in the process of giving ourselves over to God's own purposes our own hearts will rightly be opened up, poured out, and our own needs met (as Isaiah reminds us in the first reading, God's Word will not return to him void!), prayer is first of all something we are empowered to do for God's own sake!