Sometimes it seems that the word “prayer” carries too much religious baggage with it; it is worn out from too much handling by too many people. It has become a duty that people feel they must fulfill, and therefore even a burden to rebel against. Personally, I do not see prayer as a duty, but an opportunity to come before God and tell him my worries, my needs, my happiness, or my gratitude. In this sense, prayer is simply conversing with God – something anyone can do.
Prayer may be a rite that involves a written verse, a prayer book, a certain place and time of day, or even a specific position of the body. Or it may have no form at all, but simply be a posture of the heart.
For most of us, silence and solitude are the most natural starting points for finding God and communicating with him, since both entail laying aside external distractions and emptying our minds and hearts of trivial concerns. It is as if God has come into the room to talk with us, and we must first look up from whatever we are doing to acknowledge him before the conversation can begin. For others of us, the act of becoming silent before God is not only a preparation for prayer, it is prayer. Such conversation is like the unspoken dialogue between a couple, or any other two people who know each other so well that they can communicate without words.
Especially after we have failed or done wrong, the act of coming to God in prayer and bringing our weaknesses to him means placing ourselves under his clear light, and seeing the wretchedness of our true state.
Our God is a consuming fire, and my filth crackles as he seizes hold of me; he is all light and my darkness shrivels under his blaze. It is this naked blaze of God that makes prayer so terrible. For most of the time, we can persuade ourselves we are good enough, as good as the next man, perhaps even better, who knows? Then we come to prayer – real prayer, unprotected prayer – and there is nothing left in us, no ground on which to stand. Sr. Wendy Beckett
Given Sister Wendy’s recognition of the contrast between the Almighty and a puny human being, one might fairly ask, “Does God really answer me, or does my praying just get me used to the discomfort of my situation?” Indeed, there are skeptics who feel that prayer is simply a forum for working through our feelings, and those who say, “All I want is God’s will, and he can give that without my prayers.”
I have no simple answers to these riddles, but that doesn’t mean there are no answers. As I see it, it is a matter of relationships. If I claim God as my father, I need to be able to talk to him when I am in trouble. And before that, I need to be actively involved in my relationship with him – at least enough to know where I can find him.
Having given us free will, God does not force himself on any of us. He needs us to ask him to work in our lives before he intervenes. We must want his presence, be desperate for the inner food he can provide. Like the figures found on the walls of Roman catacombs, we must lift our eyes and arms to God, not merely waiting for him, but reaching upward to find him and to receive whatever he will give us.
In this sense praying is much more than talking with God. Prayer gives us the opportunity to discern God’s will by coming into direct contact with him. It enables us to ask God for whatever we need, including judgment, mercy, and the grace to change our lives. It is even, as Henri Nouwen has written, “a revolutionary matter, because once you begin, you put your entire life in the balance.”
From Cries from the Heart