It is Easter and our proclamation rings out thus: Christ is risen, Alleluia, Alleluia. At the beginning of Lent, Christ invited us to fast, give alms and to pray. On the night before his crucifixion, he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. This was after the Passover meal and the apostles were heavy and their dreary eyes could hardly stay open. Yet, it is important to stress that these are not now left behind. Our lives are supposed to be a life of prayer.
We Catholics have been accused of not knowing how to pray. By this, critics mean that when Catholics are called upon in gatherings to pray, they resort to some “formulaic” prayers like the Our Father, the Hail Mary and Glory be to the Father etc Some memorized words that they hardly understand what they mean. Sad enough, this criticism is offered by the same group of people who claim the Bible as their only reference point for anything religious.
Once I was asked to write prayers of the faithful for a solemn occasion. I spent a whole night and was shocked that these got rejected by the deacon commissioned to prepare the liturgy. I later learnt that far from being prayers, my crafting sounded more like a speech.
There is a lot that can be and has been said about prayer. I would be arrogating too much to myself were I to claim that I can teach anything about prayer. Christ alone, who taught the apostles, can teach us all. The apostles it is recorded asked their master: Lord, teach us how to pray. What a prayer! We too must ask Christ to teach us how to pray. Prayer is a school and in this school of prayer experience is the best teacher.
My first experience of prayer was in catechism classes where I learnt that prayer is talking and listening to God. In its essence then, prayer is a dialogue; it is a conversation.
Three ways one can characterize “talking” are: talking about, talking to and talking with. In a gossipy world such as ours, talking about is quite common. Gossips have moved from being a pastime to a fulltime activity. The advent of cell phones has aggravated this bad habit. If we could spend some ¼ of the time we spend talking about others to talking about them to God, what a great difference this will make. The presumption is that to talk about somebody we should know the person. This is however not often the case. A friend recounted to me how she sat in the midst of folks who lambasted her without knowing she was the one. The classical example is the story of friends who would see a movie ad and then go on to recount the movie as though they had watched it already. Or the proverbial reading a letter from the envelope.
There are different forms of talking about God – theology is talking about God; evangelization is also talking about God. We cannot talk about God without knowing Him. One way of knowing God is through prayer. In and through prayer, we get to know God. Too many of us talk about God without knowing God. Talk about God has clearly become cheap.
A second popular form of prayer is talking to God. The most popular time when most of us think about God is when we are beset by problems. Many of us go about our daily routine with God relegated in the background or just downright absent. Then when we hit a block, we pull God in. Prayer becomes merely a tool we use to strong-arm God. There is no denying it that ‘talking to God” is popular. Man is essentially selfish. Prayer becomes an exercise in demand and supply as we come to God and all we say is: give me this, give me that. We must learn to make prayer also an act of giving. When we pray, we are also invited to give. We must A.S.K: ask, seek and knock but we must also give. Let us learn to offer.
This mentality of prayer treats prayer as some form of magic. Best example that comes to my mind is that of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus who at the request of his friends conjures Helen of Troy.
Master Doctor Faustus, since our conference about fair ladies,
which was the beautifullest in all
the world, we have determined with ourselves that Helen
of Greece was the admirablest lady that ever lived: there-
fore, Master Doctor, if you will do us that favour, as to let(5)
us see that peerless dame of Greece, whom all the world
admires for majesty, we should think ourselves much
beholding unto you.
For that I know your friendship is unfeigned,(10)
And Faustus’ custom is not to deny
The just requests of those that wish him well,
You shall behold that peerless dame of Greece,
No otherways for pomp and majesty
Than when Sir Paris crossed the seas with her,(15)
And brought the spoils to rich Dardania.
Be silent, then, for danger is in words.
Talking to God betrays this image of a magical wand and prayer becomes an exercise in the esoteric science of magic.
“Prayer is not an exercise in elegant prose composition to persuade an unwilling God to give us what we want. St Augustine said, ‘There should not be too much speaking, just much prayer.’ We cannot impress Him by our diligence, our perseverance, our squeezed-out emotions.”
A cursory look at prayer shows that undue emphasis has been placed on talking. Our conversations are paradoxically more often monologues and needs’-based.
A third aspect is talking with God. When we talk with God, we learn to listen to God. This becomes a dialogue, in fact, a conversation. Listening to God requires us to cultivate the spirit of silence. In a world that is so noisy, this is a skill we badly need. The experience by Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12 is instructive. God did not come in the powerful wind, not in the earthquake and not in the fire but rather in a gentle whisper. It is not just about external silence but above all internal silence. It sounds like a circuitous journey but is worth saying that through prayer we cultivate this act of listening to God.
The danger with this way of talking about prayer is that prayer becomes something that we do. Prayer is not just an activity but in fact an experience. An experience of the divine elicits a response. This response can either be in words (others/ours), in action or just in silence. Prayer is an encounter with the divine. In and through prayer we encounter God. To pray is essentially to enter into a relationship with God.
It behooves me to address at this point a common false dichotomy that pits direct relationship to/with God and indirect relationship as though they are mutually exclusive. A friend of mine has repeatedly told me when I have invited him to come with me for mass that he prays directly to God in the secret confines of his room. There are many who rile the Catholic Church for instituting praying through the saints and through Mary.
(To be continued)