Pray without ceasing.”
I Thessalonians 5:17

The Angelus by Millet ca 1857

I’ve known a lot of faithful people in my life. And one of the most striking things I have noticed is that it’s frighteningly easy to abuse faith. To turn it into an idol of its own.

Maybe I should be more specific. It’s easy to abuse religious practice. Like prayer, for instance.

I’ve known people who substitute prayer for action. I’ve known people who go for quantity of words, as if they think if they go on long enough, they’ll beat God into submission. I’ve known people who go for flowery language, thinking it makes their prayers more important. I’ve known people who use prayer, consciously or unconsciously, as a way to lecture other people in the room. (I should add that at least once in every category above, “people” refers to me.)

“Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
Garth Brooks

And I’ve known people who have bought into the idea of the unanswered prayer. This is one of my biggest pet peeves, because there is no such thing. That lesson, learned in my youngest elementary school days at Catholic school, still forms my world view. God answers every prayer. Every one. But sometimes, the answer is “no.”

And sometimes, the answer is “not yet.”

“If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky – up – up – up- into that lovely blue sky that looks like there’s no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”
Anne Shirley

At some point in my life, someone offered this “formula” for prayer:

First praise, then thanksgiving, and then (and only then), petition.

I struggled for years with the difference between praise and thanksgiving, but finally my daughter taught me the answer to that one.

The trouble is with that last bit. The petition bit. The part that overwhelms prayer for most of us.

The trouble is that we grow up with a wrong-headed idea of what prayer is supposed to do. Prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind. I mean, do you REALLY think you’re going to change the mind of the maker of the entire universe? If that was even possible, I’d lose my faith instantly; who can depend on a God that fickle?

No, prayer is about changing me. It is a lesson in humility, an opportunity to stretch my soul by bending my will to someone else’s. It’s about shifting my attitude from what I want, what I need, what I fear, to what God wants. To what God is asking of me.

That kind of prayer is a lot harder. But it’s also liberating.

I learned the power of this prayer during three years of infertility, when all my life was consumed by the desperate desire for a child. It was such a bruising experience, to pray two dozen times a day, every day for three years, for the same thing, and never once to hear a “yes” in reply. That is spiritual exercise of the most powerful kind. I thought I would never know the reason why God said “not yet” for so long. But in time, that question was answered, too.

“Pray without ceasing.”
I Thessalonians 5:17

When I was a kid, I used to hear that quote and shake my head. What a boring life. Are you supposed to just live on your knees? But now I understand that life itself can be a prayer. It doesn’t have to be formal. It doesn’t have to be eloquent. It doesn’t need words at all. It begins with praise, it continues with thanksgiving, and ends with “Thy Will be done.”

And when I manage to live up to it…it works for me.

5 thoughts on “Prayer

  1. Beautiful. I love this (and I remember that article from FF….though I read it before I knew you in the blogosphere).

    I often feel guilty that I don’t make enough time for formal prayer in my life, but this is a great reminder that our lives are prayer. I, too, learned that formula: Praise, Thanksgiving and only then…petition.

  2. I’ve always known that prayer wasn’t about God giving me what I wanted. And while that is good, there is also the danger which I’ve fallen into of worshiping an impersonal God, one who simply allows one to improve oneself through prayer but does not actively engage in one’s life. So these days I am still trying to correct that problem and believe that the God who is more interior than my most interior really does care about what I want (even though this in no way means it will be granted to me).

    • Rae, I didn’t always know that, but I came to understand that when I started putting together things people taught about prayer. And now when I pray for people, I tend not to pray for healing for sickness, but for strength for the affected and the family to bear whatever they’re asked to carry. And although I ask for things still, I ask “change my heart” a LOT. I don’t worry about the impersonal God part, because for me, praying like this is so inherently vertical, so inherently in tune with God’s desire to give me what is best for me, that I can’t imagine dissociating.

  3. As I’ve gotten older and have worked at following God’s will which is a forever-until-death struggle, I’ve learned that God rarely answers “No.” He always gives us something else that is better that what we asked Him for, as I wrote about in my blog post “The Asparagus Bean Surprise”. He has quite a sense of humor, too.

    For me the trick has been to recognize His gift. Another thing I’ve learned is that any time I’ve asked for a spiritual good, such as to understand a Bible verse better or some aspect of the Faith better, God always grants the prayer, though not always right away. I’ve come to believe that for everything we ask Him for, and for what He is going to give us, He has to make us ready to receive it first. Sometimes that means some pretty painful pruning on His part. God bless you for this reflection.

  4. Barb, I like your thoughts. I think we’re on the same page here. I guess what I object to is the “gimme a new toy” kind of prayer. Like you, I think that any prayer that asks for change, or understanding, or some spiritual benefit for ourselves, will be granted. But the “Please let it not rain on Saturday” kind of prayers? Those get “no”‘s all the time.

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