Do you really think that he doesn’t already know what you want?
I was in the subway, it was Friday, and there were men, Orthodox Jews, waiting in a cluster at the station, and they had books out and open, Hebrew spilling across the pages, and they were saying the words softly out loud. It was Friday, the sun was beginning to set, and their prayer had begun. I was late, the train was taking forever to arrive, and the store to which I needed to go would be closed, and so almost involuntarily I began to say the prayer my mother always said, the one that is carved on her headstone. “Little Flower, in this hour, show thy power….please let the train come.”
A few minutes passed, and then more, so I jumped out of the station, thinking maybe I could sprint. Maybe God would give me a break if I put some muscle to it. I did pretty well for a few blocks, made good time, hardly winded, thought to myself-- ‘you are in shape, dude’. I was half a block away, minutes to spare before closing time, and suddenly I had to stop dead in my tracks when a man with a hardhat startled me with a loud voice—“wait!”. He pointed up. A worker was punching out windows with a hammer and a few little pieces of the glass were falling to the sidewalk.
Oh God, I said under my breath in frustration and half prayer. Suddenly a large piece of glass was dislodged and began to fall. Someone shouted, and I looked ahead and saw a woman walking right to where it would fall, completely ignorant of the situation. It was like a movie, the glass falling as if in slow motion, positioning itself for its target, the victim moving inevitably towards her fate.
Oh my God, I said again, this time pure prayer. The woman heard the shout, reared back quickly, and the glass hit the sidewalk about five feet ahead of her, shattering in a million pieces. Oh my God, she said, Oh my God, said the hardhat man almost simultaneously, Oh my God, I heard another woman exclaim beside me on the sidewalk. She was alright, not even a splinter of glass touched her, thank God. And that’s exactly what I did, I thanked God for averting a tragedy, for the woman’s safety on the sidewalk.
I looked around. It was one of those rare moments in New York when we were all connected--people on the sidewalks, people waiting in their cars in the rush hour jam—for a moment time stood still for us all and we were caught up in one huge plea and prayer—oh God, save her from the falling glass.
Two or three people went over to the woman and asked her if she was OK, and she said, yes, Thank God. And then, the life of the city resumed. The woman walked on, a bit wary of the next step, and all the rest of us resumed our journeys as well. When I arrived at my destination, the store was of course, closed.
I stopped and sat on the plaza next to it and thought about the way I used to pray when I was a child, especially in church. I remember sitting in the pew, kneeling, and for a while I prayed for my mother and father to stop fighting—hoping, believing, that somehow God would make that happen---please, please, please…and I would be a good boy if He did.
There’s that wonderful story in the first reading of Abraham praying to God on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Like a human king God takes Abraham into his confidence and tells him he’s going to destroy both cities because a lot of people are so bad there. Abraham is worried about the innocent people who will be destroyed with all the bad ones, and his prayer is like a middle eastern bargaining session with God, haggling over numbers, even conniving a bit to get the lowest number. Abraham pleads, he cajoles, he pretends to be indignant and he even tries to be extra polite to God, all the while trying to save the whole city. It’s actually pretty funny how he does it, but in the end, even though God would probably have agreed to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if only one righteous person lived there, no dice. God destroys the cities just as he had threatened.
Sounds a lot like the way we pray, no? For that winning Powerball ticket, for the phone call from the cute boy who took your number, for the mortgage approval from the bank, for the disappearance of the throbbing migraine, for the end of all hatred and violence in the Middle East, for peace for the grieving mothers and fathers of children who have died, for a 1200 on the SAT’s, for a miraculous cure of cancer, for your children’s return to the faith, for reconciliation between sisters, for a successful pregnancy and a healthy child, for a sunny day for the wedding. It’s very moving, every Sunday up here on this altar, the real petitions that people write and which I place around the body and blood of Jesus. Our needs and our desires, our cares and our compassion on little pieces of paper. We bargain, we haggle, we plead, we cry out, we even try to be extra polite to God to get what we want or what we think we or others need.
I’m no different. I pray that way for all kinds of things like: that the line will not be too long in Trader Joe’s; or that I will say the right thing when someone criticizes me; or that I can have superpowers to find my phone; or that I not have a long, painful death.
In the Gospel one of his disciples asked Jesus, ‘Lord, teach us how to pray’. Yeah, what is the right way to pray, and what is prayer, for that matter?
I think prayer is communication. It could be one-way—which is called petitionary prayer: please God give me this. In some ways petitionary prayer is child-like, isn’t it? It is going to someone who is considered to be in charge of your life, and asking for what you need, like a daughter or a son would go to their father or mother. Mom, can I have $50 for some new jeans? Dad, can you give me some advice about this girl?
That’s essentially the kind of petitionary prayer that Jesus offers to his disciples, and us. It starts with a bit of flattery, followed by the pitch: Father, hallowed be your name. You are the boss, and we get it, what happens here happens as you want it…but, please, please, please…we’re so hungry, can you feed us? And we’re sorry, can you to forgive us? And we know we’re pathetically selfish, please keep us out of trouble so we can be better daughters and sons?
One-way, petitionary prayer. OK, it’s a good thing. It acknowledges that we are dependent creatures, doesn’t it? In Jesus’ day, 95% of the people were dirt poor, dependent on weather for their crops, their landlords for a subsistence income, on brutal dictators who demanded their money and their service. We live in a world where we often don’t feel very dependent. Except perhaps on Google and Amazon and Blue Apron. Hell, we’ve got this (my cellphone). We don’t need to pray to God because we have the power, don’t we?
I mean we THINK we have the power. Until your marriage falls apart, or the cancer invades your kidney, or your children/siblings/parents/coworkers/friends no longer care about you, or worse….no one forgives you. Then we discover that we have been living an illusion that we are our own gods. Hell indeed, sometimes because of this (my cellphone)!
But prayer doesn’t have to be one way. Prayer can be two-way communication. To be honest, I think it is the only way. Two way: you ask, but you also listen. And the listening always evokes gratitude. Thank You.
Listen to me. I’m going to ask you a question. Are we the body of Christ? No, this is not a rhetorical question, I’m really asking, so I’d like an answer. Are we—you and I together, individually, the body of Christ?
OK, thank you. And I think we agree. But think about that. If Christ is in us, and we are in Christ, how do we communicate with God? To ask for something in Jesus’ name—please Jesus find me a parking space, let me get the job/the apartment/the boyfriend/the money/the good looks, take the disease out of my blood, keep me from getting old, heal my mama---to ask for anything at all of Jesus means entering into Jesus who is already in us. And if he is already in us—we are the body of Christ, you just told me—then our petition arises from the center of who we are, which is Jesus himself.
Don’t you see? We’re not praying to a statue on the wall, or an icon, or even the host displayed on the altar, we’re communicating from the center of our being which is Him, and our desire and petition is gathered up and fused in Him and his Spirit, straight to the source and Father of Everything.
Do you see? What is essential is that you and I have a relationship with the Jesus who is already within us. And what we really want, behind all the petitions, is to rest in his love. Do you really think that he doesn’t already know what you want? Every day, every moment of your life he is whispering to you out of that love.
Knock, seek, ask, and here is your answer, to every prayer you petition, spoken to you in the whisper of your heart: You are beloved. You are so beautiful. You are the most amazing creation. You are my treasure. It is the only answer to all we need, it is everything we are. And that is perfect joy. Thank you dear Jesus, thank you, thank you…I’m listening.