Three priests were sitting in their presbytery’s garden one fine summer’s day discussing the relative merits of various body postures for prayer. It happened that a telephone repairman was in the garden too working on a line not far from where they sat. He couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.
“Kneeling is definitely best,” claimed one priest.
“No,” another countered. “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven.”
“Neither of those is best,” the third insisted. “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate on the floor.”
The repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, fellas,” he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole.”
And it’s true. Some of us do our hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole.”
And it’s true. Some of us do our best praying when we’re in dire need, or in serious danger. At times like that prayer is never boring. It’s intense, fully focused and distraction-free. Time doesn’t count. Our mind is fixed on one thing, and one thing only. No! Not God: self. We use God as a means to our end. The real test for that prayer’s pedigree is its survival prospects in the face of disappointment. Should God not answer on our terms would prayer continue to be important in our life?
To help ensure that it would we need to engage in more than only one form of prayer. Prayer of petition is fine, but there’s more to prayer than asking. There’s exploration, for example. Prayer has many facets. Why should we limit ourselves generally to two: petition and praise? The value of asking God for blessings and offering praise on account of his goodness and compassion is not in question. But is that all there is to prayer?
You may remember its description in the old ‘penny catechism’ as raising the mind and heart to God, to adore and praise him, to thank him for his benefits, to beg his grace and blessings and to obtain pardon for our sins. Does that neat, utilitarian description of prayer not shrink-wrap it somehow, diminish its character and dilute its richness? In other words, does it not rob it of its mystery?
Seeing prayer as a devotional exercise only, confines it within manageable parameters. It blunts its challenge and cushions the impact of its healthy unpredictability It ignores scripture’s insight that as the wind blows where it chooses, so it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (Jn 3.8) There’s little excitement to packaged prayer, little anticipation of discovery, little stimulus to prophetic witness. lt`s unlikely to inspire a Jeremiah, an Isaiah, an Ezekiel, or a john the Baptist And it won`t, I suspect, fire anyone’s footsteps to enter Gethsemane, or climb Golgotha. It’s worth recalling that Jesus was crucified not because he prayed, but for what he said and did because he prayed. Aye, there’s the rub!
Jesus’ close followers, his apostles, ask him to teach them how to pray. (Lk 11.1) Luke doesn’t say why. So let’s explore here.
The apostles know that Jesus prays a lot. That he goes off to lonely places to pray. That he spends whole nights alone in prayer They must be curious about what happens on these occasions. Is it not likely that they link his sayings and doings in public with his practice of prayer in private? He’s a man of mystery. Going off alone for hours on end heightens his aura of mystery and charismatic power. His followers want a slice of the action too. They want some of his powers to rub off on them. (According to Mk 6. 13 some in fact do.) And it`s just possible, is it not, that they figure prayer is the gateway to those powers?
If this is true, then, although the apostles’ motivation is not the purest, it does show that they have copped on to the fact that prayer has the power to transform. It transforms those who pray and those who benefit from those who pray. Prayer is not something private only. It has public consequences because it serves mission. So does our prayer transform us? Do we even want it to? The difficulty here is that we can’t control the change. Our part is to open up to whatever change prayer may try to effect in us. Aye, there`s the rub, again.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) #2726 reads as follows: Some people view prayer as a simple psychological activity others as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void. Still others reduce prayer to ritual words and postures .... Those who seek God by prayer are quickly discouraged because they do not know that prayer comes also from the Holy Spirit and not from themselves alone.
Prayer is never a solitary activity even though we may seek solitude for it. God’s Spirit, like the wind that blows where it will, won’t allow our comfort zones to cramp his style. He sets the agenda, not us. Always active in our prayer; he inspires, enlightens and purifies us when we pray. Now, if through prayer he leads the Father’s beloved Son to witness to truth even though that journey ends on Golgotha, should we be surprised when he points us in the same direction?
That’s why prayer at its most authentic is always ‘dangerous’. It has to be open-ended. Prayer that`s exploration is following God’s Spirit both privately and publicly wherever he leads — even to places we would never want to go. Our golgothas are the dark, secret places in our personality, or in our personal history that need light and air. They could also be lifestyle habits, private or public, in which we have allowed impulses or addictions to control our behaviour. They could be in the workplace, or at home, where serious challenges to our integrity and even to our relationships face us, where issues lurk that we just won`t face up to. Our golgothas could be places in society that need our presence, witness and service but that threaten us in a way that we avoid going there. Prayer that's exploration shows us where these places are. Whether we go there is up to us.
The prayer of exploration uses imagination, reason and emotion. It’s listening to God’s word and daring to think outside the box but within the Church. It isolates us from others for a time only to plunge us more deeply into the daily demands that serving others makes upon us. It challenges as well as comforts. It instils courage besides imparting wisdom. It matures as well as makes holy. It opens us to God and to our fellow human beings. Prayer must do all of these things for us. Otherwise, it might qualify for the caricatured description that an American journalist, Ambrose Bierce, once gave prayer: "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy". If that’s what prayer is, then it`s playing safe. It will never lead to Golgotha, or to any other place of transformation.
Tom Cahill, SVD