Exploring "Asking" Prayer
Do you ever find yourself wondering about the nature and purpose of asking, or petitionary, prayer? Is it a valid way of praying? Is it too selfish? What's the point of it? In these letters, the British diplomat Mark Allen and the Carmelite nun Ruth Burrows explore these very questions.
Very dear Ruth,
Having put some of the groundwork ideas in place, can we link them to what may be the common experience – a personal practice of prayer which possibly hasn't developed much since early in life? We may feel very awkward with prayer because we realise that our approach to prayer is dislocated from adult experience. It's like trying to speak in a foreign language when you are a beginner: here are kind, interested and interesting foreigners and all you can say in very simple language is how long you have been in the country, ask how many children they have, and so on. We don't seem to be able to pray where we are, or, more subtly, where we feel we are.
We may feel very awkward with prayer because we realise that our approach to prayer is dislocated from adult experience.
Our earliest memories are possibly of petitionary prayer, asking God for what we want. I think now of somebody the other day who told me that she would like to pray more, but she found herself only asking for things for herself and felt a bit guilty about this – it seemed so selfish – and so by and large she didn't pray, though she would like to, and so on. This was an expression of how close we can come to prayer and then veer off. Like a hawk in the air, looking intently, but then sweeping sideways on the wind, we are caught for a bit and then go away.
If I feel the wind is high and I am having real difficulty in paying any attention to what I am doing. constantly tempted to slip down the wind, I find that asking prayer is a good way of holding on to something. What do you think about petitionary prayer?
With much love,
This correspondence is taken from Letters on Prayer: An Exchange on Prayer and Faith by Mark Allen and Ruth Burrows.
Isn't Christian existence itself petition, or even, leaving Christianity aside, religious existence in general? It is the expression of dependency; of the awareness of our limitation and helplessness in so many areas. One doesn't need to have lived long to know this by experience. But staying within our own context of Christianity, petition, asking, is the practical admission that we are here to receive, to be “done unto" and the deeper our faith, the more we know that this is pure blessedness.
We are here to receive all that God, divine Love, has to give. The Church's liturgical prayer is almost all an asking. Even the acts of praise reveal that we depend on divine aid to enable us to praise: God must praise within us. So you see, Mark, I am all for petitionary prayer.
However, all of the above assumes much. It is not our normal human experience. This vision of faith does not “beat in our pulses," does not shine in our minds in such a way as to compel attention and enrapture our hearts. Our daily experience is of our needs, our anxieties and concerns here and now. We are concerned about those we love, their health. their well-being; concerned maybe about continuing in employment; about our children, their progress in school on which their future seems to depend; who of us is not in close contact with someone in affliction of mind or body? These are the things that press on our hearts and that we pray about.
No Christian could possibly deny the validity of such prayer. Look at the Gospels: “Lord, if you want to, you can make me clean"; “Lord, come and heal my child"; “Lord, he whom you love is sick." Our Lord made people see that he was there for them, there to be asked, there to help and there to heal. We get Paul and others exhorting their communities to lay their needs before God, lay bare their anxieties, cast their cares on the Lord, intercede for others.
God loves us as we are, where we are, and will always be intent on drawing us on. God does not despise us in our weakness, in our small notions of love.
We go to God, pray to God, as we are, where we are. Two people could be saying the same words, making the same petition, but one has a heart purely directed to God, full of faith and love, the other a heart still harbouring a great deal of selfishness. “Son, they have no wine," Jesus's mother could say. “Lord, please make my party a success," another could plead because she hates losing face before others. God loves us as we are, where we are, and will always be intent on drawing us on. God does not despise us in our weakness, in our small notions of love.
As you say, Mark, I expect for most of us who had the good fortune to be brought up in a Christian environment, petitionary prayer was our first introduction to prayer. It was certainly mine. Family night prayers held a list of petitions: God bless mother and father, my brother and sisters, all aunts and uncles. . . Still, the program was headed by the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be to the Father, as well as an act of contrition. I remember that we prayed for the holy souls. We would pray for a fine day for our picnic, to pass our exams, as well as for a neighbour who was sick. “Ordinary" folk in those days would not know how to pray otherwise than by using set prayers. I know my father and mother knelt down morning and evening to “say" their prayers. I am sure many of these centred on us children.
But what mattered was their hearts. They gave time to this, they were expressing faith and trust; they were looking for guidance. Divine Love, I am certain, was entering their hearts, purifying, enlightening them and making them grow in faith and love even though they may not have been aware of it. Here I would repeat my basic insight regarding prayer, that it is not what we do but what God does in us. Petitionary prayer is our way of keeping in touch with God in our daily lives and what we are really doing is ensuring that God's help is there for us to endure with patience and love whatever befalls.
What we are really doing is ensuring that God's help is there for us to endure with patience and love whatever befalls.
So, to return to your lady. She was praying for herself only and came to see that this was selfish. Why not believe this awareness was grace, God's response? To see our selfishness is grace. The sad part is that she packs up. God wants her to pray to be less selfish, to be shown how to be better. And if she cannot sincerely want that, then to pray to want it, to want to want. But pray. Go on addressing that Someone.
If I were in contact with her I would like to suggest that she made a little choice, namely to take ten minutes each day to recite the Our Father slowly, pondering on what it might mean, wanting what it wants, which is what Jesus saw God wants for us, identifying this Father with that Someone she asked things of. I would urge her to persevere in this whether she likes it or not, gets anything out of it or not, no matter how wooden it all seemed. There is no way round this taking of trouble. She must choose. She must do what she can. But we need one another, Mark, and we must not be afraid of offering a helping hand, sharing our own insight as best we can.
To conclude, I have little time with all the attempts to explain how intercessory prayer “works." My mind is rational enough and such questions naturally arise, but I ignore them. It is enough for me that Jesus tells us to ask, to seek, to knock. We see him making petitions; the Our Father is petition throughout. That is enough for me and I leave the whole thing in its mystery. I know God is all love, that no sigh, no prayer goes unanswered and this includes our most earthly and maybe selfish prayers as well as those that are truly “in my name" – wholly according to the mind of Jesus. How, in what way, I leave to God.
With my love,