Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Thoughts on Prayer

An old priest once told me that you never have to say a formal prayer in your life. A friend who is a nun told me that she makes up her own novenas. My dissertation advisor, who is Catholic, confessed that she didn't know how to pray; my good friend Soprannie confided to me once that she knew only one prayer, but said it frequently: "Jesus, walk with me." Saint Paul's injunction to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) inspired the classic work of Eastern Christian mysticism The Way of a Pilgrim, as well as J.D. Salinger's self-conscious commentary upon it, Franny and Zooey. A respected friend of mine, a laicized priest, has become a teacher of Centering Prayer, while others claim that its techniques are dangerous and heterodox.

During my most recent pregnancy, my sister, a professed Buddhist, told me that she was doing a special White Tara practice for me. Thinking anything would help, I also asked her to do it, whatever it was, for a friend. I ended up in the confessional, where the priest suggested that the will of God could not be changed. I left in doubt, for the Bible is full of examples of the will of God being changed through petitionary prayer, one instance among many being God's relenting on his promise to destroy Nineveh in the book of Jonah, which Jonah, pictured above, found very annoying.

So I'm wondering: how should I pray? And for what? Can prayer be boiled down to the essentials of "please" and "thank you"? The Psalms, which make up the meat of the Church's public prayer, can be divided that way, into songs of pleading and songs of praise. I know I should pray for my sister's reconversion back to the Catholic faith, for instance. But what about my first husband, M.?

He is a cradle Buddhist; his father is a Buddhist priest. Many years ago, when our marriage was ending and I asked him to forgive me for the wrongs I'd done him, he replied that forgiveness was a Christian concept that had no place in his philosophy. We haven't had much contact over the years, but I know that he has switched careers from being an uncompromising and visionary visual artist to a corporate lawyer, and that he has a family. When I think of him, it is with respect and affection, and I pray that God will prosper the work of his hands and give him and his family peace. But should I also be praying for his conversion?

As the African tribesman said to the missionary, "Is it true that when I did not know about Jesus Christ, if I died and did not confess Him, I would be spared the fires of Hell, but now that I know Him, if I die and do not confess Him, I will not be spared?"

The missionary answered, "It is true."

The tribesman replied, "Then why did you tell me?"


alfonso said...

I find all this too tricky.
I don't know if this will help or not. I don't want to give lessons. But if you ask for opinions (talking about the relationship between God and men and women) I think in the relationship between sons and parents. They can vary but they enlighten what should be natural.
I try to think in God as a Father (Our Lord told us so) that loves us, that loves me, that knows my heart better than me myself. He knows us and our needs. He doesn't need to hear us; but He wants to hear us.
Also like a child with his mother, I'm his child and I try to put my worries in his hands. Whatever there comes.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your insight, Alfonso. Jesus' exegesis of prayer is so simple that I suppose the temptation is to make it wildly complicated.

Robot Boy said...

I think your ex was being a little sophistic there.

Robot Boy said...

Moishe is drowning in a river. He prays to God to save him and he waits. A branch floats past. He doesn't grab it; he thinks God will save him, so he waits. Then comes a lifeboat, full of people. They tell him to jump in but he says, "No, I'm waiting. God will save me" and they leave him. Then comes a steamer. The captain throws a rope down, but Moishe doesn't take it. The steamer goes past, Moishe drowns, goes to heaven and says to God, "I prayed hard all my life, I ate kosher, I raised five children, three of them rabbis, and you let me drown?" And God said, "What do you want from me? I sent a branch, a lifeboat and a steamer. You want I should have jumped in the river myself?"

Pentimento said...

Perhaps M. was being sophistic, Robot Boy. You know how he was. I think the Moishe story illustrates how hard it is to see the hand of God in things that don't conform to our expectations. And since nothing does, it's even harder.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

So I'm wondering: how should I pray? And for what?

I wonder that as well, for I wonder how it is that God operates in the world. Sometimes I hear of prayer described as an activity like putting coins in a slot: reach the right amount and God responds. That idea doesn’t sit well with me. I tend to think of prayer as "words" of love to a beloved who may not be able to ease my suffering, but is there, suffering with me, bent low in humble love.

Pentimento said...

That's a beautiful way to picture God, Kyle. I suspect I treat him more like a two-year-old treats his mother.