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?"