Prayer: why bother?

Reflections on Connecting Spiritually

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When I’m talking to God, what am I doing? Like a lot of children, I was taught “my prayers” before I even started nursery school. My mother was Catholic, so, naturally, I learned the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary.” I said my prayers kneeling by the bed at night because I was supposed to. Mom wanted me to, and God wanted me to. Those prayers had the special words I needed to talk to God and so they were strange—words like “thee” and “thy” and “trespasses” and “womb.” Later, she taught me the rosary, which required learning a few more prayers. I think she taught it to me so that I would keep quiet and stop squirming in church. The older I got, the more prayers there were to learn. Then, when I got to be an altar boy, they were in Latin. God’s native tongue? I can still recite them today. Over time, an odd thing happened: the more prayers I learned, the less useful they became. I still used them, but a lot less often.

When I was ordained, leading formal prayers was easy. All I had to do was follow the book and fill in the blanks. Ironically, much of what I did prayer-wise was called “liturgy”—literally “the people’s work”—although I was usually the only one praying (at least out loud). When I had actually to lead people in impromptu prayer, I found myself at a loss. It reminded me of some of those old westerns I saw growing up where the grizzled hero would growl, “I ain’t a prayin’ man, but…” The prayers I came up with sounded silly when I heard myself say them. I don’t know what anyone else actually thought. You’d be surprised how little honest feedback spiritual leaders get from their flock. “That was beautiful, Father.”

I did a lot of talking into the Void in my own head, though. Every once in a while, the Void would answer back. I remember one time I happened to be in Rome for about thirty-six hours shortly after the pope had died. I’d always wanted to experience what the election of a pope would be like at ground zero. I was kneeling in Saint Peter’s and prayed, “Let me see the election before I have to leave Rome.” The Void answered back with a palpable chuckle. “Just you wait, little man, just you wait!” I walked out of the church into a crowd of maybe a hundred thousand people and watched the white smoke rise from the little chimney on the Sistine Chapel signaling the election.

So, what about it? Does praying into the Void make a lot of sense? As far as accomplishing anything significant, not much. It provides some comfort and consolation and maybe a bit of guidance on those rare occasions when the Void responds. People may be entirely justified wondering what’s the point. How often, in reality, does prayer change the outcome of any situation? What are the chances that I’ll get to change God’s mind?

I was lucky. I got to learn the truth about prayer a long time ago at the feet of spiritual master. He gave me the key: prayer isn’t about talking to God at all. It’s about listening. It’s not about changing God’s mind; it’s about changing mine. It’s not about getting something from God; it’s about giving back. If I truly listen, not just with my ears but with my entire being, I can’t help but come to the realization that everything I have, everything I am, is gift. What have I to offer to my God (regardless of the name I use) that is not already a gift? I have only two things that are truly mine alone: my willingness and my time. If I’m willing to regift my time in prayer, that constitutes not only the greatest gift I have to give, it’s the only gift I have.

What goes on in my mind—that cacophony of random thoughts and concerns—means nothing. These “distractions” are entirely irrelevant to what I’m doing. At the same time, I understand that those memorized, formulaic prayers do have a purpose. They keep my monkey mind temporarily occupied while my heart just listens. What my heart hears from the Void is none of my business. I do see the results. I come away from prayer with patience, inner peace and quiet, acceptance, tolerance, endurance, and courage. People relate with me as a nicer person. Seldom does the Void supply my mind with any useful information, but then, I don’t really care. Every morning, when I get up before dawn to spend an hour listening to the Void, I find I have everything I need for the day. I think that’s worth the bother.

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