Prayer

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” -Soren Kierkegaard

The temptation with prayer is always to come before the divine with what you already want, to project your own preconceptions onto divinity and then go home with nothing more than a vague aura of the sacred impressed upon your own superficiality. The results of this have always been the same: an immediate frustration at the silence of God, followed by a deep dissatisfaction with his lack of intervention. After all, we prayed for our careers- why are they not improving? We prayed for our health- why are we becoming ill? We prayed for our friends- why are they in danger? But if we had known what we were doing, we would have prayed for precarity. No Haitian I have ever met has the career prospects that I do- and nine out of every ten sincerely faithful Christians I have met is Haitian. The question we are asking is: “why do I not have more?” The questions we should be asking are “why are so many who have a fraction of what I do so much happier than I am?” and “why am I not able to enjoy what I have?” If you cannot even enjoy what you already have, why do you think that you would be able to enjoy more than you have? We are in the position of asking to be trusted with more of our master’s funds while we are squandering even what funds he has given us- we are the object of a parable. Better to have nothing, and therefore compelled to rely upon that which is real and permanent, than to have everything and therefore be able to rely upon that which is ephemeral and unlasting. So our orientation has become precisely inverted.

But when we pray, rather than instructing God about what he should do on our behalf in heaven, we must strive to ascertain what we should on his behalf on earth. Everything we ask of God must be the changing of our minds- deciding that we want it after all. And this is not a course to chart lightly. Make no mistake, you will be held to the words you speak before the almighty. If you have asked God to increase your compassion for lepers, it should not be in the slightest surprising that you contract leprosy. Always there is a price- if you do not understand this, your prayer will be pointless. The way in which it is possible to chart a course forward in spite of the price is by holding this truth in the deepest part of your heart: that it is your infinite benefit to become closer to God, it is pure joy. Your mind will indeed resist, but only for the same reason you have not always done what you now set out to do- that resistance is only the inertia of growth. The Christian life is composed quite simply of contending by faith against fear.

Far too much blood has been shed over the question of who should be the recipients of our prayers.The conflict cannot ever be settled because there is no answer- prayer is an inward act, and the character of each person’s life is unique. The object of prayer is of course God, whether one is directing their prayers at a saint or an ancestor, or the virgin Mary, or a person of the trinity or anything else. This gives a special character to prayers directed at God himself- such prayers are, and I do not hesitate in the slightest to say it, presumptuous the degree of absurdity. No degree of solemnity or sacredness approaches that which the act deserves. Yet we cannot have that kind of relationship with God- purely solemn, of the utmost seriousness at all times, though the subject matter more than deserves it. Our souls will never abide such distance. If you cannot joke with God, if you never burst out laughing and smiling during prayer, then your relationship with Him is not personal enough. It must be both personal and serious; always serious, and sometimes solemn; but not always solemn.

Still it would be a mistake to forget that, while prayer to God himself does have unique characteristics by its very nature, we direct our prayers at God as we understand him, and our own understanding of God can never be sufficient. I do not find it in the slightest improbable that someone’s own internal conception, their “mental image” of, for example, the virgin Mary, might be far more developed than their “image” of God himself. For such a person, contemplation of Mary would feel as much more real and personal compared to contemplation of God as a first language feels compared to a second. How much more so when the object of one’s prayers is a loved family member? There is no rule for these sorts of things- you must do whatever is beneficial to you, bearing in mind that just because this is terribly serious does not in the slightest mean that it isn’t meant to be fun. Do you what your heart moves you to do.

On the other hand, I would counsel strongly against one thing- ceasing prayer to God entirely. Everything that is prayed to any source, if it is a worthy prayer, is directed solely at improving one’s relationship with God. One cannot be blamed for having a weak internal conception of God; but one ought to do their utmost to improve it. It is not, ultimately, anything else that will help us through our lives and restore our souls- if we cannot bear to speak to God, all the efforts of our friends will come to nothing. It is one thing to talk about God, but quite another to talk to him.

One of the mistakes which has multiplied itself in modernity is this act of placing such an emphasis on the transcendence of God- his incomprehensibility, unchangeability, infinite separation from mankind, and lack of concern for men, that very little image of him remains in our minds at all. We have a long list of things that he is not, but very little conception of what he is, the remaining image is an inaccessible, theoretical clockmaker with no thought,  perception, will, or emotion, who has no effect on our lives one way or the other; what we are imagining is almost exactly nothing. But God is nothing like nothing. We must remember the incarnation- the incarnation is central. God is fully transcendent and fully immanent. He is as immanent as he is transcendent and as transcendent as he is immanent. This is a paradox, but we must embrace the paradox rather than trying to resolve it by leaning to one side or the other. It is only because it is paradoxical that it is beneficial to us at all. If we are to emphasize anything, it should be not the immanence or the transcendence of God, but the paradoxicality of God.

As for myself, I direct my prayers almost exclusively to Jesus and have ever since I became a Christian. This fulfills my spiritual need to address God directly, while retaining all the relatability of a living man; the living embodiment of the paradox and the source of salvation, who so desperately loves mankind that he subjected himself to death on a cross. Yes, I have found Christ the best object of prayer all my life.

But of course, the distinction has always been rather technical and irrelevant. When I am praying to God, I am praying to God- the specific person of the trinity, if I think of it at all, is of secondary importance.

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