Sunday, October 3, 2010

Prayer: Preliminarily

Michelle recently wrote a piece entitled "Prayer tips from around the world," and, as I commented, I felt a post of my own coming on.  (I was determined not to appropriate her comment section as if it were my own.)  I thought I would wait until I returned from retreat, but at least a preliminary post has emerged despite my efforts to suppress it.


Last week a gentleman said to me, in those words people so often use, "There is nothing I can do, so I just pray for her."

Prayer as a last resort.

The thoughts I am about to share have already been said, so many times and so much more eloquently, that I wonder at my presumption in adding yet another piece to the pile of paper spent exploring them.  But the context in which the remark was made was not one in which I could say what was on my mind, so this is, I suppose, my substitute.

Why is prayer not first?

Perhaps because we are so accustomed to thinking of prayer as petition, and as petition alone, and almost as accustomed to the harsh reality that so many of our petitions seem to waft into the air, float briefly above us, and disappear into the sky, unanswered, unremembered, nothing more than yet another source of disappointment.  Perhaps it seems, at times, that responses form themselves into miracles, but for every loved one who pulls through the surgery, there is another down the hall, equally beloved, for whom the code team arrives moments too late.

If we understand prayer as a magical incantation which will convince God to handle matters according to our preferences, after we have done what we can to advance progress toward our desired goal, then it not surprisingly becomes the last resort, the final "just-in-case" tag to a master plan.

If we however understand prayer as attentiveness, as the opening of ourselves to the divine presence in all things, then it makes no sense whatever to say that "There's nothing left to do but pray."

Not that it is ever too late ~ surely we need to be alert to God's presence when things are crashing into unresolvable crisis.

But if our prayer is always, "Where is your love, where and how are we to encounter you in this?" then should it be not only our first prayer but also our first response?

And are those not, more or less, the words behind every genuine prayer, whether framed as a plea for help, a protest of pain, or an expression of grateful thanksgiving?  Whether made in the form of the repetition of familiar words or the of imaginative evocation of a scene from Scripture, whether in long-sought and wordless silence or in a complex blend of vocal and instrumental music?  Whether pursued in solitude or joined in community?

Always, I think, our prayer is God's invitation to us to look and listen for the love that is God's search for us.  It is not the leftover plea in which we engage when "there's nothing else to do."  It is how we live into the gift of our God wandering through the chaos we have made of our garden and calling, "Where are you?"


  1. That's nearly a full rolling boil...oh, yes, that's is an incredibly good question to ask about prayer!!

  2. Thank you for this post, and these questions. They've been on my mind a lot lately. I just came through an experience (being a bone marrow/stem cell donor for a stranger) that made me wonder about the whole prayer as last resort thing. Including this unknown woman in my prayers felt more like a partnership: God, we are both in this together. I will do my part, You will do Yours, and neither of us will be alone or let this patient down no matter what the result, good or bad. The more I thought of prayer that way, the more I noticed how many people were needed to complete this one act: at least two hospitals, a small army of doctors and nurses, untold volunteers and friends, and so forth... So prayer seems to be more complex than just communication of some sort between God and any one person alone.


  3. Michelle -

    Which question?

    Do I need to rewrite the last sentence? It's God who's calling, "Where are you?" (not that we don't ask the same thing) -- which is the invitation that envelops us in prayer.

  4. Prayer as alertness and attentiveness to God. Prayer as a first resort. Very inspiring! Thank you.