Monday, March 24, 2014

What our prayer is, and what it isn't.

It is not uncommon for any priest to have this scenario unfold before him – a person comes up to him and tells him of a friend who has faith issues at the moment, and would like the priest to speak to this person so that his faith can be strengthened and restored.  Oftentimes, this low point in the faith life of the person is accompanied by the fact that he or she is at the same time facing some kind of other crisis in life – it could be a broken relationship, a loss of a steady job or a health issue of a serious nature.  The unspoken request is actually this – please make God real for this person, so that he or she doesn’t live anymore in the dark, and remove this crisis from him/her.

 While it is not an unreasonable request, and one which mirrors some of the deepest pleas made by the faithful in the Gospels by people coming up to Jesus, it poses some problems for almost all of us who are journeying on in faith.  For the majority of us, faith is something which stands apart from receiving special blessings and favours from God.  Sure, we know that God in his goodness wants to give us the best things in life (as far as seeing life from his perspective is concerned), but most of the time, we do not get what we ask for principally because we have our own agendas as top priorities.  So, instead of asking for fish, we are asking for snakes, and instead of bread, we may be asking for stones. 

Tying up faith closely with getting our favours granted reduces very much religion and faith to any commercial quid-pro-quo transaction.  Would that God show me his immense prowess, I will have very little to do with him.  The more he manifests his divine presence in my life, the more I will be convinced that I am right about worshipping him and dedicating my life to him.  While not entirely wrong it itself, the element of faith is something which is clearly lacking.  The atheist will say that unless one sees, one will not believe.  Faith requires that we believe without seeing, as Jesus himself said that blessed is he who doesn’t see and yet believes. 

Does this mean that we are often in a spiritual quandary?  If we are addicts to positive feelings in our spiritual lives, and only are confident in God’s love and existence if things are going our way, where are we when the good feelings end and it seems as if God has turned a deaf ear to our pleas?  Spiritual masters like St Ignatius of Loyola have a lot to teach us about spiritual consolations and spiritual desolations.  Some of us may be surprised to find out that how we decide on the direction of our prayer lives in times of consolation or desolation affects very much our inner disposition in these times.  For instance, if I am in a particular low mood and do not feel like dedicating my time to either prayer or reading the Scriptures, or any spiritual, and instead use my time to satisfy my own boredom by engaging in pointless chatter and aimless web-surfing, I am contributing very much to the down-spiral of my being with God.  But on the other had, I may be in that same low mood but my inner being reminds me that loving God is a decision and not something that should be affected by my positive or good feelings, and continue to spend time in contemplation and praise God, I become conscious of my being with God. 

It then becomes clear that our faith is never linear, and ever alive.  And God always wants us to purify our love for Him in the ways that we pray, and love our fellow man and woman.  One of the hardest purifications that anyone can be given is the ‘gift’ of not receiving any consolations or insights or positive feelings in prayer.  A case in point would be the love and dedication that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta experienced for the many years she did her work without ceasing.  We now know that she was in a spiritual darkness for a prolonged period, but that never stopped her from doing what she was doing.  What makes her faith both admirable and great is that she continued to love without having that assurance from God that makes such difficult work much easier.   In that darkness that she was in, God was allowing her to purify her love for him. 

Purification of this sort never feels good.  At the heart of it, when one is purified this way, God is in fact inviting the person to the prayer of helplessness.  No one likes to feel helpless.  Most of us like to be at the command control of life, get rid of helplessness, and then pray.  But for one who is given this kind of purification of silence and seeming emptiness, one is invited to stand before God with open arms and heart.  When one decides to pray in times like these, one loses oneself before God, and that becomes a very pure prayer of self-offering.

Scripture abounds with examples of people who came up to Jesus with varying degrees of helplessness.  Yesterday’s Gospel featured the helplessness of the Samaritan woman.  The crippled man who practically lived by the pool of Bethesda was helpless.  The widow of Nain represents those who were not able to help themselves in society.  So too was the man born blind.  Strange as it may seem, helplessness or the admission of our own human limits seems to be the way the Christian life works. 

Perhaps the insight to this is that this admission of our own limits and limitations is what makes prayer work in moments dark and silent.  It works because we are honest about our incapabilities.  It makes us aware of the limitations of our own powers.

Quick spiritual conversions may be wonderful to read about, and they may bolster our sometimes-wavering faith.  But it is often the long-term, dedicated life of a praying Christian who sticks to his relationship with God through a regular prayer pattern who prepares himself for any kinds of crises that could come his way.

Just as countries plan out defense stratagem or offence manoeuvres in peace times to ready themselves in times of emergency and social/political crises, and just as athletes train with dogged dedication outside of competition periods so that they are in top form during actual competition season, so too should the praying person prepare himself outside of crises situations in order to exercise his faith when these silent and seeming helpless moments occur in life.  Any honest pray-er will tell you that these moments are real. 


  1. Dear Father Luke,

    Not everyone gets to see the manifestation of Christ in their life but some do. That does not mean those who did not see God stop believing and praying for and with Him. The relationship with God is forged through an intimate, quiet and peaceful moment no other relationships are capable of such deep encounter.

    Prayers are like seeds waiting to geminate, grow and blossom. Chaotic forces abide in nature, but man, by carefully responding to the rhythms and cycles of the world around him, can find peace in the natural world. By planting the right crop in the right place in the right season, the farmer brings harmony to the natural world of plants, and prosperity (harvest) to his family. Similarly, any relationship must go through natural cycles; only through flexibility and adaptation can order and growth be maintained. Peaceful times produce fruit and prosperity; the wise person channels this positive energy to all quarters, to each in proper proportion, just as a farmer waters his field. But be vigilant and patient about the things we ask for in our prayers, and not all prayers will be answered: otherwise, peaceful conditions can foster the growth of weeds (Where is God?).

    Proceed long term, but resolutely, with a prayerful relationship with God is much needed in this 'hurried' world. The situation is calling for consistency and patience. Waiting is an essential skill; patience is a powerful force. Time is an ally of those with inner strength for prayers -- the kind of strength that allows you to be uncompromisingly honest with yourself, while sticking to the path you have charted, your conversation with God. With perseverance and a positive attitude, time weakens even the hardest obstacles. Steadfast waiting while holding to our integrity leads to slow but permanent improvements in our spiritual dimension, for God deems fit when the prayer is to be answered or not.

    When we pray and meditate, painful conflicts give way to realization that inevitably change must come. Earth stands above heaven and heaven seems to be on earth. The gravity of matter merges with the upward radiation of the light (hope) in a deep harmony. This juxtaposition denotes a time of peace and blessings for all living things. In relationships, both partners be it all females, males or boy and girl, are well disposed towards each other, even if there has been conflict. This state marks an end to fussing and fighting. The spiritual energy is high. The way is clear, and the situation becomes more endurable. Pray that God will show us the way.

    Awesome, awesome! Thank you for showing the way to a prayerful life.

    May God Bless You.

    T. Dior

  2. dear frLuke, i took cue and example of you (when you first left for Rome) to make my first hour of prayer very early in the morning. This 'steadfastness' has seen me through the ups and downs and i thank the Lord for the grace, and you, His instrument. Thank you too father :)


  3. I find this post intriguing as faith is juxtaposed to prayer and this gives rise to the tendency to query which comes first and whether the oft-repeated accusation that Christians have “blind faith” is totally a fallacy or does it have a grain of truth?
    So I reflected on your example of Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta and believed that hers is not a case of blind faith, but rather a “knowing” faith. Like you mentioned in the last two paragraphs of your post, she must have been one of those who had had “...........long-term, dedicated life of a praying Christian who sticks to his relationship with God through a regular prayer pattern who prepares himself for any kinds of crises that could come his way.” In other words, like Abraham and the fathers of faith in the Bible, she knows God and hence, she can love God even when she was not given any consolations for such a long period of time. For her, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen..........” (Heb 11:1)
    ie faith is the spiritual substance that causes the things you are hoping for to become reality. Thus, hers is a deep and abiding faith because she knows her Beloved, and so like Jesus (in the Garden of Gethsemane) her prayer of faith and subsequently her whole life’s journey rests implicitly on God’s strength, believing in His promises and in the goodness and love of the Father.......(something akin to what you said about being powerless/helpless)

    As to which comes first, it doesn’t seem to matter much for both faith and prayer seems to be inseparable. For we have been taught that whatever the amount of faith we have (be it the size of a mustard seed, a fig, an acorn or a coconut!) - what is necessary is that we have to exercise this persist to act on this little faith we have and to submit in trust (even when we are sorely tried)........... as these challenges or experiences shape us to receive and accept the answer He has already prepared for our good.
    It has been said that “faith thrives in an atmosphere of makes prayer effectual and strong and gives one the patience to wait on God.”

    God bless you, Fr.


  4. Thank you Father for your sharing. Yes, I haven't had that feel-good, close-to-God feeling for a long time. Your sharing has reaffirmed that our faith is not merely a feeling but a decision, to make "godly" choices in our lives. Secondly our prayers may not always be "answered" straight away; maybe we can take a leaf from our early Christian fathers when they use the phrase "Deo Volente" (God willing), or as our Muslim brothers say "Inshaa Allah".