08 August 2015

On the Problem with Long-Winded Prayers

[[Dear Sister, why would Jesus prohibit long prayers with many words? And if God knows what we need before we pray, why do we pray at all? Do you have a favorite prayer you use every day?]]

I think you are referring to Matthew's instruction on prayer, no? The answer, I think has several aspects. The first is a matter of history and especially of the concern with idolatry. You see when Matthew's gospel was written belief in the power of prayer was tenuous. Folks did believe if they called on God by name God would be forced to answer but this was a far cry from turning oneself over to God in trusting submission. As a result however, people developed lists of all of the names of gods (or God) known. These "magic papyri" were then taken and someone would stand on the equivalent of the street corner and read off all the names believing that a prayer would be answered of the correct name was used; to know and call upon one's name indicated power over that person. This long-winded usage is more that of incantation than it is one of genuine invocation because one was not really calling upon God by name in trust and intimacy! In any case, the first reason for Matthew-Jesus' instructions was a way of weaning folks from this magical or superstitious and idolatrous approach to prayer and the use of God's name. (And of course this was buttressed by the invocation of the prayer which allowed us to call upon God as Abba --- the name of God Jesus used in a unique sense.)

The second reason has to do with distraction and focus. When we go on and on in our prayers, when, that is, we talk and talk it is a good deal harder to stay in touch with our deepest feelings and sense of neediness. (Partly this is because these may well be beyond words. Partly it is because naming specific aspects of this neediness can cause other aspects to be excluded from consciousness and our prayer.) Moreover, we may simply become enamored of hearing our own prayer and in a related vein, we may be more focused on our own piety, etc., than we actually are on God. If you pay attention to yourself and your own inner situation in prayer sometime, note how reading a long rote prayer or waxing on with your own prayer becomes less about God and more about yourself, your concerns with whether you have said it all, said it well enough, impressed God with your need or your devotion or your eloquence, etc. Note also how diffused or weakened your sense of profound need has become, how other things take the place of the one overarching concern that caused you to turn to God in the first place.

I used the picture of the Prodigal Son and Father above here because one thing that is really striking to me in light of this conversation is how the Father cuts off the son's long and rehearsed speech of "repentance". It is not that the Father does not listen, but that he really accepts the son more fully and profoundly than the son's proposal would have allowed for. You see when I read the proposed speech I hear the Son distancing himself further and further from the deep and complete sense of sorrow, contrition, and unworthiness he feels (or felt initially!).

He begins to propose solutions in that speech, mitigations, equivocations, compromises, and a final surrendering of his actual identity and dignity. He says he can be a servant rather than a son and heir, and though there is a statement of unworthiness included, the chances that he might be raised to the dignity of true humility rather than admitted to a kind of softened and tolerable humiliation is taken out of his Father's hands. But in prayer the point is to put our whole selves into our Father's hands and allow him to dispose of us as he will. After all, God knows what we truly need! The purpose of prayer is to allow God to do what only God can do, to raise us to a genuine humility --- to the truth of who we are in light of God's love --- not to propose a tolerable but punishing shamefulness in its place. Again and again this is the message of Jesus' encounter with sinners and the larger culture. I guess that generally I see long-winded prayers as following the pattern of the prodigal son's speech; more often than not they involve our own attempt to control things, our own tendency to substitute human wisdom and justice for divine, and thus, our failure to radically trust the depth of God's love or the scope and wisdom of his mercy. By the way, it may well be that one of the real mercies of God, one of the ways God demonstrates knowing what we really need long before we do --- much less long before we put this into words --- is precisely in cutting off our long-winded, often well-rehearsed prayers!

In any case, generally speaking, if one can go on and on in a relatively eloquent prayer, one has distracted oneself from the starkness of one's concerns and need for God. One has ceased to be a poor person seeking only what God desires to give. One has also distracted oneself from the difficult work of waiting on God and discerning the way God is working. The really classic example of a prayer that "says it all" and allows for our entire submission of self to God's creative and redemptive love without distraction or attenuation is the Jesus Prayer, "O God (Lord Jesus Christ), have mercy on me a sinner!" God is praised in the very giving of ourselves and in our allowing him to gift us as he will. To my mind there is no greater praise of God than this. Meanwhile, to answer your second question, we pray in order to pose the question we are so that God might be the answer he is, the answer we need, the answer we cannot supply or be on our own. We are not giving God information when we pray; we are giving God ourselves in an attitude or posture of openness and vulnerability. God has already given himself to us. Our prayer lets that gift be accepted and received.

Personally my own favorite brief prayer, and the one I use all the time is "O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me!" It stresses the urgency of my prayer, and it helps me be patient. It also reflects my own certainty that God knows what I need and will assist as is best; thus, for me it combines need with faith. Nor does it distance me from the deep feelings involved here. For both praise and plea I tend to go back to my Franciscan roots, My God and my all! This also articulates my greatest needs and aspirations, the goal and ground of any eremitical life. When, we stay in touch with the deep feelings associated with our prayer, we are ready to receive the answer to our prayer whenever and how ever that comes to us. It is essential to "hearing" the answer God's presence will be for us. We can only receive God to the extent we pose the question we are. If we have distracted ourselves from the depths and keenness of our feelings, we have made it impossible for God to be the answer we need to the extent we need him to be that.

Besides the prayer, "O Lord make haste . . ." my favorite prayer is the "Lord's Prayer". While I say it at Mass, Communion services, and during Office, I don't usually recite it otherwise. Instead I tend to break it up into individual focuses, petitions, or thought units, and meditate on those --- usually for a number of days or weeks. My favorite prayer at night is the "nunc dimittis" but for a short prayer I like and use, "Protect us as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep" either with or without the continuing "that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep rest in his peace." Both of these are from the office of Night Prayer. The latter is something I find especially helpful when I am unwell.