Joel Virgo has written a nice set of articles on prayer at the Resurgence website. Here is one line that caught my attention:
“It’s clear that certain praying gets nowhere near the ears of God since it is a mere religious exercise and is offered up to no one in particular.”
Upon reading this, I was reminded immediately of St. Teresa’s words:
“It makes me laugh, and yet it makes me sad, when I hear of the things which people come here to beg us to pray to God for; we are to ask His Majesty to give them money and to provide them with incomes—I wish that some of these people would entreat God to enable them to trample all such things beneath their feet.”
I note that St. Teresa explicitly takes the notion of trivial prayer much farther than does Mr. Virgo, who refers to Jesus’ words about the empty prayers of the Gentiles in Matthew 6:7. What did Jesus mean by “empty words”? Gentiles are human, too, and humans seem to have a need to ask their god to take care of the details of life. I cannot imagine anyone who is facing a serious life challenge coming to their god with anything but a plain and simple request. Maybe some ritualistic prayer involves babbling. Buddhist prayers seem to qualify in this regard. I know little about the prayers of religions that were extant at the time of Jesus. Reading the context of Matthew 6, however, I get a sense that the warning of Jesus extended beyond simple babbling. I contend that Eugene Peterson would agree, based on the way he paraphrased Matthew 6:
“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.” (Matt 6:7-8, The Message)
The Message, rather than referring to Gentiles, prefers to paste the idea of empty prayer into a broader context that is more easily understood in the 21st century to include people like me. Jesus was using the Gentiles’ method of prayer as an example of how not to pray. He was speaking to Jews, telling them that if they pray like the Gentiles, they should stop. It follows that Jesus must have expected his hearers, Jews, to be just as vulnerable to empty prayers as the Gentiles. It also follows that Jesus, if he were to speak two thousand years later to Christians, would repeat the same warning: Don’t use formulas and empty words — get real!
It would be foolish, therefore, to simply assume that the way I pray is just fine because my prayers are just like the prayers of other Christians. If, according to Jesus, all the Gentiles had deranged prayer lives and Jews were prone to fall into the same trap, then is it not possible that modern-day Christians, as a group, might likewise engage in similarly ineffective prayer? Such prayers would not be heard by God and, therefore, would be very unsatisfying, ultimately. Being devoted to prayer is hard enough without being told by God, Himself, that it might be a waste of time.1
Aristotle said that, ““We are what we repeatedly do.” If we have made a habit out of getting before God and “asking for stuff,” then what will we become over a period of months and years and decades? Selfish, self-centered, self-satisfied, conceited, egocentric, vain people. Prayer is transformative, no matter how it is done, and, if I continue to pray as I have for the last thirty years, I am on track to being transformed into a three-year-old, who sees God, not as His Majesty, but as a cosmic Santa Claus. It would seem prudent that I should take Jesus’ words about prayer in Matthew 6 most seriously. I will assert that unless I get this “prayer thing” right, I will maintain my status as the center of the universe and will never come to understand God for who He really is.
Enter the likes of St. Teresa with her strikingly different practice of prayer. She is not alone. Pick up a book that contains prayers by a long-dead saint and you will be exposed to prayers that are categorically different from what you hear in church or Sunday School or Wednesday night prayer meetings. These old prayers are not different because they use flowery language characteristic of old English. St. Teresa includes many prayers in her books and none use anything like majestic language. What sets her prayers apart is that she was crystal clear about who she was and who she was praying to. Likewise, the prayers of the apostle Paul are similarly profound and when I read them, I wonder what (and who) he knew that I don’t.
It seems to me that if I ever want my prayers to emulate those of the great saints or the New Testament, I will need to start with the object of those prayers. And that is why, for now, my prayers comprise, almost totally, worship of the King.
1 It is one thing for a person to erroneously conclude that prayer is a waste of time because no one is listening or because God hears, but does not care or does not agree with the prayer. It’s quite another for the Master of the Universe to tell us that there is a way of praying that is, in fact, a waste of time.