What is prayer?
My wife and I are vacationing on the coast in this early September of 2016. We are away from our relationships; and frankly I can tell she is struggling to keep from feeling bored and misplaced. Fortunately there are various forms of staying in touch with family and friends.
We are too old to engage in exciting things like surfing or kayaking; we can’t afford expensive tours of the sea by boat. We are even too cheap to go out for dinner much. The weather is glorious – but I didn’t bring enough money and not everyone accepts credit cards. Anyway it is better for me to stay away from opportunities to buy nice things as I would run out our bank account if I was allowed to shop. The question becomes how to keep the trip from being memorable for being stifling.
Fortunately we went to the Vigil Mass yesterday, September 10th. We received the wrong information over the internet (fancy that!) about the start time and arrived over a half-hour early, directly after the start of the Rosary. On most days we pray the Rosary together as we walk, but on this day we didn’t happen to walk and – ta da! – we arrived at a place where we could pray the Rosary after all. The Holy Spirit at work?
I choose life. This means I choose to believe that in this self-imposed desert I was lead to the water. The Mother of God needs us and our prayers – she has work to do.
What is prayer anyway? The old part of me – the part that was chewed and spat out like something the cat left on the porch – THAT part of me has been dogging me during this vacation. It tells me that my prayer is just me making myself feel good; that I am just imagining things. THAT part of me is telling me once again that I really am a failure, can’t even plan a good time right.
How can I possibly begin to know God? What is the evidence? And once again, it is everything or nothing. Choose. How easy it is to pick at the edges of a scarf until a thread comes loose, and to begin to unravel it. How hard it is to make something that is finished and resists being picked apart!
Feeling sorry for myself, unfortunately, fails to bring me close to God, or Mary or Jesus. Perhaps I should imagine myself in their shoes. How long must I listen to this whiner? How many times must we forgive those who have offended us? Jesus replies to Peter, not seven times, but seventy-seven. Or in my case, 77,000. At least.
What good was Jesus’ self-sacrifice if we don’t embrace it? What does God require? In a nutshell, Love. First, love God. Second, love your neighbor as you love yourself. What is the testimony that supports this? The words of Jesus himself – and he specifically referenced the Torah (both Deuteronomy 6 and the Ten Commandments) when he spoke them. Any Jew of his time would have known this.
An old song encourages, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.” St. John Vianney affirmed essentially the same thing. Saints aren’t saints because they were perfect. If St. John Vianney, the model of humility, tells me to come clean and try again, I think I better listen. My best thinking gets me nowhere.
So I pray.
And the answer to the question I began with, curiously enough, is that prayer is a form of self-sacrifice. It acquires meaning because I can’t give it meaning – but God can, and I trust God. God isn’t some feel-good thought process to affirm myself. I can’t trust myself that far. What do I know, and who am I? I am nobody without God. My worth is only acquired by putting the little I am out there and giving it to God as it is. We are encouraged, “Much will be forgiven a repentant heart.”
But more than that, because God is love, I can only reach the conclusion that somehow my prayer is important. In prayer I affirm God, who is evidently a hopeless co-dependent. Being hopelessly co-dependent, he doesn’t want to lose a single soul. My prayer helps that – just because I pray. I make his agenda, my agenda. That is all he asks.
I can do more – but I run the risk of starting and continuing something out of pride. When this happens, it is no longer God’s agenda. Prayer in the form of the Rosary keeps me from laying on a load of you-know-what, as in: “God, my projects are obviously worthwhile. Please help me to…” James says that we do not have answer to our prayers because we pray for the wrong things.
And so I do little, and try to pray much. I no longer trust myself and I think it is most loving not to even address the question with regard to others. Instead, I trust God, launch a few trial balloons, take my time – that is the hardest – and try to stay out the way. I try to do no harm; to be a good husband, father, and brother by reacting in charity rather than anger when my desires are thwarted; to start things that I can finish well. In short, I try not to unravel God’s scarf.