Why Do We Pray? This Is Why…
God wants us to speak to him, so that he may listen and thus speak back to us
In the fourth and final section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), all the previous bits on Creed, Code and Cult having been cobbled together by faceless committees of bishops, it fell to a devout and learned priest to produce the concluding text on the life of prayer, God’s chosen source of Consolation for the baptized. And while the shortest section of the four, it proved to be the most moving, the happy result of prolonged meditation by an extraordinary French Dominican named Jean Corbon, who died in 2001. Much of it compiled from the testimony of numerous saints and martyrs, whose resources reach far beyond the exertions of mere bishops and theologians, it beautifully compresses the whole teaching of the Church on the nature of prayer, not for a moment forgetting our profound — even desperate — need for it.
What truly astonishes, however, is the fact that it was written and assembled in a city then under siege (Beirut, Lebanon), the constant bombardment of which frequently drove its author underground in order to finish the job. The same Beirut, by the way, where Mother Teresa in August 1982 arranged, through the auspices of the Blessed Mother, a temporary ceasefire in order to allow her and her Missionaries of Charity to carry dozens of abandoned orphans to safety.
So, what should we know about prayer? How exactly are we to understand the phenomenon? “The wild cry of longing,” the poet W.H. Auden called it, “against which all legislation is helpless.” Why is it so important?
Put it this way: If the life of faith is to remain fresh, vibrant and alive, then it will find its most necessary nourishment in the practice of prayer. On no other source does the maintenance of belief so completely depend. To lift the mind and heart to God, which is the very essence of prayer, remains the mainstay to the life of faith — lacking which, it will sooner or later fall away, blown apart, as it were, by the repeated refusal to speak to God. And what else does God wish of us, but that we should speak to him, so that he may listen and thus speak back to us?
“To enter into the presence of him who awaits us,” is how the Catechism puts it (2711), which is a positively stunning admission when you think of it. After all, if God is Creator and Lord of the universe — the great I AM WHO AM of Exodus 3 — why on earth should he need to await anyone? What have we got that he needs?
And yet, in John 4:10 we hear these mysterious words spoken by Jesus to the woman at the well: “If you knew the gift of God!” What can they mean? Only that God, in the form of the human being Jesus, has been waiting from all eternity to meet this woman, in order to offer her water that will never run dry. He meets her thirst with a thirst still greater, which is his own. “It is he,” the Catechism tells us, “who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him” (2561).
As the wise old peasant, who spoke so confidingly to St. John Vianney, once put it, “I look at him and he looks at me.” It is as simple and as profound as that. I to my Beloved, my Beloved unto me. Nothing testifies more eloquently to the deepest longing of the human heart than this simple driving desire for God. It is the engine, after all, that God himself designed, to urge us along the road that leads back to him. To bring about, as St. Teresa of Ávila tells us, “a close sharing between friends.”
Prayer, then, is the lifeblood of the soul, the connecting link between ourselves and God. And, to be sure, he is the one who empowers us to make it happen, grace kickstarting the mechanism by which we find ourselves drawn ever more deeply into an unending intimacy with him. What an amazing array of options we’ve been given, too, the moment grace stirs the juices that cause the life of prayer to flow.
But none so necessary, in the judgment certainly of the ordinary sinner, as petitionary prayer, which reveals unmistakably the nakedness and need we have when facing God. Why else would Jesus have invented the Our Father? It is the perfect formula for overcoming our abject poverty. “Give us this day our daily bread…” What else does that mean if not the bread of meaning, of the truth for which we most hunger and thirst, evincing a desire greater than the universe itself? We’re not asking for a sandwich, for heaven’s sake. Or even a pair of Gucci shoes. But meaning, a reason to soldier on, despite all the fears and failures that can leave the soul sullen and dispirited.
What then is prayer but the language of hope, the virtue most applicable to our creaturely state, as beings on the way but not yet there? It is, as Emily Dickinson reminds us,
The thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
When harnessed to hope, prayer becomes a kind of mobile, lifting the mind and heart to God. “The little implement,” she calls it,
Through which men reach
Where presence is denied them
They fling their speech
By means of it in God’s ear…
And, of course, he listens. Because he too is a hoper, hoping that we’ll spend some time together and thus grow in love, prelude to a life of joy that has no end.