Since the prayer book calls us specifically to attend to our lives of prayer during the season of Lent, it never hurts to have a quick refresher on exactly what we mean by that word.
When most modern people hear the word “prayer” or are asked a question like, “does prayer work,” they are usually considering just one aspect of just one kind of prayer. But there are lots of different kinds of prayer out there. One way of breaking down the principal kinds of prayer is with this list, borrowed from the prayer book’s catechism:
Adoration: the lifting up of the soul to God’s presence, resting in the experience of being present with God.
Praise: rejoicing in God because of the nature of God’s being; praise evoked by who God is, not because of any benefits that we might receive from God.
Thanksgiving: rejoicing in God because of the things that God has done for us and for all creation; rejoicing in the relationship that God has chosen to initiate with creation and for the specific benefits known to us.
Penitence: confession where we acknowledge our sin and admit specific ways in which our lives, actions, and intentions are at odds with God’s own hopes, dreams, and plans for the redemption of all creation.
Oblation: an offering and dedication of the whole self to God.
Intercession: offering before God the needs of others.
Petition: offering before God our own needs.
As you look down this list, you may realize that what a lot of people mean when they use the word “prayer” is a subsection of the last kind, petition. After considering the various kinds of prayer, we start to realize that when people ask, “does prayer work?” what they’re really asking is, “If I ask God for something, will I get it?”
In fact, if we want to be honest about it, more often than not this tendency to equate prayer with petition devolves into an attempt to bargain with God: “O God, if you’ll just do X thing for me, I promise that I’ll do Y…”
The Y may involve promises to go to church more frequently or to be a better person or something of that sort; if we sweeten the pot with a promise, perhaps God will be more willing to give in.
Here’s the problem: this becomes less an act of prayer as it becomes more an act of negotiation. The root problem is that negotiation involves leverage—one party has something that the other wants and uses that to get what they need.
Negotiating implies that we have some kind of leverage over God—but we don’t! In the grand scheme of things, whether we’re in church more or less makes no difference to the greatness of God. Any attempt at leverage lacks a certain honesty because it misrepresents the true nature of our relationship with God.
There is nothing that God needs from us. There is no leverage that we have over God.
Looking at prayer from our side as a habit or a practice, it is best understood as a process of increasing honesty. We come to better understand the relationship that we have with God in large measure by becoming aware of and stripping away falsehoods, misjudgments, and lies about who we are and who God is.
That may sound a little harsh, but it’s not intended to be: some of these falsehoods are ones that we have inherited from our religious traditions or our spiritual teachers—clergy, parents, or elders. Others are ones that we ourselves have created in the process of trying to make sense of our place in the world.
We are ignorant of some of these falsehoods; others we are subtly aware of; still others we are so aware of that we create strategies to actively ignore them or to distract ourselves from the truth they contradict.
In prayer we gain a far better sense of who we are, who God is, and the true character of the relationship between us: the loving, constructive, redemptive relationship that God yearns to have with every part of creation.
This Lent, may we be attentive to our prayer. Let us mingle the various aspects of prayer with one another, balancing our spiritual diet with the full range of flavors. The prayer book and the psalms are ever our guides and teachers on the way.
And as we pray, however we pray, may we seek the honest path with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves.
[Photo credit: Public domain via Pixabay.]
What type of prayer comes most naturally to you?