What Do You Pray For?
An excerpt from The Magic Word, Stirrings and Stories of Faith and Minstry by Frederick Houk Borsch, (Cathedral Center Press, 2001, p. 233-235)
What do you pray for? I find this one of the most interesting and revealing questions about the spiritual life. Sometimes, the question produces guilt. Gee, I don’t pray enough. Or, I don’t think much of what I pray about.
But those are just preliminary responses, perhaps in part defensive gestures to avoid talking about what may seem too intimate. We may also suppose that what we pray for isn’t important enough, or that it is too mundane or trivial or even wrong. Lord, I pray to win the lotto on this once. It should solve almost everything, and then I’ll be better able to serve you. One remembers the joke: “When I was little and didn’t know any better, I prayed for a new bicycle. Now that I’m more mature, I pray for a Mercedes.”
I have, however, learned something important about prayer – and that is not to leave out the things one really wants. Prayer cannot be honest if love is on my lips and the lotto in my heart. One of the things I have always valued in the Psalms is the way the Psalmist lets it all hang out – including getting even with one’s enemies.
Such honest prayer may help us to gain a greater perspective on our deepest hopes and fears – what we most need and want. But it also brings up another problem. What do we really think God will do – or God can do – about our prayers? Scripture tells us that God is better than all earthly parents and will give good things to those who ask. That may often seem true, but we know, too, of prayers that do not seem to be answered. Sometimes they are the most desperate pleas to spare a loved one. And we may imagine all the prayers cried out in the midst of the Holocaust. Do we believe that God can or will intervene in the world of automobile crashes, AIDS, poverty and Intifada to answer our prayers for safety and cure, justice and peace? These are hard and perhaps confusing questions. We know that no squad of angels came to rescue Jesus from the cross. We hear his cry of forsakenness. Yet still he prayed.
There are days when we are grateful to have words for our prayers. I am particularly grateful to have the Lord’s Prayer: to know that I do not pray alone when, by myself or with the community of faith, I ask for God’s kingdom and God’s will – God’s ways – to come on earth as in heaven. We pray for life’s daily bread and the true bread of life; that we may be forgiven as we are given grace to forgive others; that we will not fall in the great temptation to give up on God’s Spirit or to give in to evil. We can be grateful for other prayers that help us to offer thanksgiving and love, to pray for forgiveness and courage and strength better to serve, to pray for others and for ourselves.
There will be times, however, when we are beyond the understanding that shapes our words. We are not sure what to pray for. Then we yearn for “the Spirit that helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” George Herbert says that “prayer is God’s breath in man” – God’s breath in us, yearning with our spirits.
When in Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells us that God knows how to give gifts better than earthly parents, the gift the heavenly Father offers “is the Holy spirit to those who ask.” What better gift for myself and for whom I pray than the divine Awareness as the context for their awareness in life, for God’s Spirit with theirs, for Presence in the valleys, with the thorns and crosses and the sacraments and joys of life.
Sometimes, when I am praying for others, a curious thing happens. They begin to levitate in my prayers. They come up off the ground. And I imagine I see them with their legs sort of dangling and their jacket flapping – in all their vulnerability. I can see them, as it were, all around, and I imagine that this is something like God sees them and holds them up. The author of the 14th century The Cloud of Unknowing tells us that “God, with the all-merciful eyes, sees not only who we are and who we have been but who we will be.” Without knowing what other things to pray for others or for myself, I ask for us and all people to be held in that Spirit.
What do you pray for?