Prayer for Beginners

Child Praying

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

It has taken me some time to understand prayer. I know I can always learn new things—what prayer is, how to pray, how to enhance my experience of prayer, how to teach others to pray. I’ve spent many hours in prayer. I’ve read many books on prayer. I’ve taken countless courses and workshops on prayer, mostly techniques and methods. Sometimes I discover things that work for me, sometimes what doesn’t. But my quest to understand and pray better continues. I will attempt to tell you what I know. But there is no guarantee I will tell you anything new.

Many books and workshops on prayer assume a person already knows what prayer is, and why anyone would pray. When I was younger, I would look around at the older people in church hoping I would pick up on something awesome, something mysterious and other-worldly that would just make complete sense. I already knew some prayers by heart—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Apostles’ Creed, the Act of Contrition, and many of the prayers we use at mass. But somehow I knew I was still missing something important. It just felt like I was saying a bunch of words into empty space. I didn’t know if I was supposed to feel anything. I didn’t know if it made a difference saying the words out loud or quietly in my head. Like most Catholics, I knew nothing of spontaneous prayer. I imagined if I used my own words I wouldn’t know what to say. It has taken me a few experiences of adversity and a closer examination of scripture to better understand prayer.

I have always heard that prayer is communication with God; and communication simply put, is a meeting of the minds. So prayer is a meeting of God’s mind and my mind. That comes about when I tell God what’s on my mind, and God tells me what’s on his, and we both listen to what the other is saying. A big challenge is that when I don’t use my own words, when I pray only the prayers I’ve committed to memory, I don’t think I am able to accurately convey what’s on my mind. And God might know what’s on my mind before I say anything, but I need to say it anyway. Still even before I open my mouth or think the words, how do I know someone is listening to what I’m saying? Sometimes I see people talking to themselves as they walk down the street. This was all before Bluetooth, so the first explanation that came to mind was it was some form of mental illness. It takes a lot to truly believe there is someone out there listening, especially as a beginner in prayer. It looked so easy when other people did it, like they were talking to a friend. But it didn’t occur to me I needed a relationship with God to begin with. I couldn’t just start talking like we’ve known each other for years. That would just be weird. Then it occurred to me that a child arrives at an awareness of mom and dad long after mom and dad have expressed their love, care, and wisdom. So when we first attempt to communicate with God, God has already been communicating with us all along. Until I realize that God is reaching out to me first, prayer makes no sense.

Moses prayer

So the images in scripture today have some implications that I think are often misunderstood. The fact that Israel won the battle against the Amalekites because Moses held his hands high gives the impression that God can be manipulated. For as long as Moses could keep his hands up, Israel got the better of the fight. I have a feeling that image has fueled the notion that persistent prayer, even persistent ritual prayer, has power to move God to act on our behalf. I’m not suggesting God is deaf to some kinds of prayer, or that God would turn away when we make use of persistent ritual prayer. Rather, we forget that perhaps Moses raised his hands on the mountain in that universal gesture of petition because God told him to. It was God’s idea to start with. So God was not subjecting himself to human control. So when we bargain with God as though we were doing God a favor, as though we had anything to offer that God would want, we deceive ourselves.

Persistent widow

Then the persistence of the widow in today’s gospel reading seeking justice for her cause, of which we know absolutely nothing, might embolden us to pray with persistence thinking our cause would merit the same consideration. “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them?” I’m sure the gospel writer wasn’t talking about winning the lottery, or getting a snow day, or finding a great bargain the day after Thanksgiving. God can surely tell if and when our cause is truly just, and not just because we think it is. “I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.” Exactly what “speedily” means is up to God as well. Human history has witnessed the slow progress of justice through the ages. Seldom if ever does the struggle for any just cause come to fruition in the lifetime of those who first brought it to everyone’s attention. Instead, the struggle often proves to be long and hard. We pray to God with patience and perseverance. We encourage one another to keep focus. We might not see in our lifetime the success we long for, but we are convinced others will take up our cause, and one day the justice that God desires will prevail.

And there is a wide spectrum between the two examples we encounter in scripture today—from the prayer of the naïve, the misguided, and the arrogant, to the prayer of the humble, the trusting, and the faithful. Prayer is an acknowledgment of a relationship between us and God. This gracious and powerful God who created each of us in his own image and likeness desires a personal connection with us, one based on honesty, humility, and integrity, not on deception, hypocrisy, and bribery. Our human relationships provide a good point of reference. What is often unacceptable to those we love and respect will probably not be acceptable either in our relationship with God. We don’t just put 2 quarters in a slot and push a button. That is not how prayer works.

We have been praying intensely for Norah Mastrandea these last few months. And God chose to call her home to himself last Friday. We may not comprehend God’s wisdom because we did not get what we asked for. Still, we are thankful for whatever time we had with her. For all life is a gift.

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These past couple of weeks, the whole world witnessed our national leaders make a big show of their inability to work together. Many people prayed for a quick resolution to the crisis. But are we also willing to lend a hand to achieve the best outcome? Chris Cox is a man from South Carolina, who mowed the lawn and picked up trash at the national mall.  I think he deserves the Nobel Prize in something. Don’t you think?

Rolo B Castillo © 2013

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