One the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” One of the best stories that I know about prayer comes from the Hasidic Jewish tradition:
The Rebbe Levi Isaac of Berditchev asked an illiterate tailor what he did on Yom Kippur since he could not read the prescribed prayers. The Jew reluctantly replied: “I spoke to God and told Him that the sins for which I am expected to repent are minor ones. I also said to Him: ‘My sins are inconsequential; I may have kept leftover cloth or occasionally forgotten to recite some prayers. But You have committed really grave sins. You have removed mothers from their children and children from their mothers. So let’s reach an agreement. If You’ll pardon me, I’m ready to pardon You.”
The Berditchever rabbi angrily rebuked the unlettered Jew: “You are not only illiterate but also foolish. You were too lenient with God. You should have insisted that He bring redemption to the entire Jewish people.”[i]
I love this story because it turns our usual notions of prayer upside down, and comes a lot closer to the kind of prayer that Jesus advocated. Notice here that prayer is not relegated to the religious experts: even the illiterate tailor is allowed, not only to approach God, but to get in God’s face. This is not the polite, formal prayer of God’s “frozen chosen.” It is prayer rooted in real relationship, an intimacy that allows one to storm heaven, to make demands, to take a few risks.
The point here is not to pray “correctly,” but rather to pray vulnerably, to really show up and put one’s self out there before God. Such prayer is not about making nice, or fulfilling an obligation, or trying to score a few points with God. It is about growing in relationship with God.
The rabbi admonishes the tailor, not because he has been presumptuous or disrespectful, but because he didn’t go far enough! He should have asked for more! This “more,” however, represents a demand that goes beyond the self-interest of the tailor. The tailor’s problem is that he thought only of himself, when he should have prayed for the entire Jewish people. We tend to ask too little of God, perhaps because we fear that if we ask for more God might demand more from us as well.
It seems to me that the moral of the story is that prayer is properly in the imperative mode. That is to say, heart felt prayer is insistent, demanding, a calling upon God to be God that requires more than a little commitment on our part. “Praying,” writes Walter Wink, “is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes.”[ii]
In other words, be careful what you pray for: you may well have to become part of the answer to your prayer. As Kierkegaard said, “Prayer changes the one who prays.” Is that what we really want? I prayed all of my life that my father would stop drinking, all the while becoming more afraid of, and for, my father, and resentful that he didn’t change. Then, after many years of separation, I discovered a month ago that he has been sober for almost two years. How surprised I was to discover that it took more time for me to let go of my fear and resentment, than it did for my father to stop drinking. I hadn’t yet become part of the answer to my prayer. How humbling to discover that it was me who needed to change.
Prayer in the imperative mode is about learning to let God be God and becoming self-differentiated, the unique person we were created to be, in the process. Such prayer brings us on a journey toward maturity, in which we increasingly learn to take responsibility for our part and leave the rest to God. The practice of prayer is not meant to leave us cloying, dependent, sycophants in relationship to God, nor is the “goal” of prayer a kind of mystical absorption into God in which we lose all sense of identity. Prayer is about learning to be self-differentiated in relationship with God and the world, even when to do so is uncomfortable or even threatening.
Jesus instructs us to command God when we pray: Your kingdom come! Give us each day our daily bread! Forgive us our sins! Do not bring us to the time of trial! Jesus teaches us to be insistent and persistent, to trust that God will give us the Holy Spirit in answer to our incessant demands. Prayer in the imperative mode takes more than a little chutzpa. But beware! You will have to grow up before you can receive what you demand.
Notice, too, what we are instructed to demand from God. All of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are communal in scope; we ask not only for ourselves, but for us – all of us. Remember the tailor’s error? He prayed only for his own redemption, and not for the redemption of Israel. Jesus teaches us to pray, to demand, God’s kingdom of justice and peace; enough bread for all of us each day; the forgiveness of debts so that none are trapped in perpetual slavery to poverty; deliverance from evil.
Prayer in the imperative mode and its demands are inescapably political in nature. Jesus teaches us to pray for the restoration of human dignity in a just and peaceful world. We pray for ourselves in light of our participation in the whole. To pray for anything less is hardly to pray at all. And so to pray is to enter into a way of life that is in opposition to the powers of this world that destroy the creatures of God. Prayer is a political act, and as such is almost always a subversive act.
As Richard Rohr puts it, To pray is to build your own house. To pray is to discover that Someone else is within your house. To pray is to recognize that it is not your house at all. To keep praying is to have no house to protect because there is only One House. And that One House is everybody’s Home . . . That is the politics of prayer. And that is probably why truly spiritual people are always a threat to politicians of any sort. They want our allegiance and we can no longer give it. Our house is too big.[iii]
The dichotomies between contemplation and action, mysticism and prophecy, solitude and community, are transcended and integrated in the lives of those who persevere in prayer. The great saints of the Christian tradition always have exemplified this truth, from Jesus himself to Desmond Tutu. As we go deeper on the inner journey, the more expansive becomes our sense of connection with the whole of creation. Prayer shatters inner boundaries as we integrate light and shadow, and shatters external boundaries of race, nation, even species, as we discover that we are but a microcosm of the universe: “Thou art that;” “Everything belongs.”
Prayer is imperative: it demands much of God and of us as we grow in relationship. Prayer is political: it invariably expands are range of connection and compassion. But the real difference between a life that is grounded in prayer and one that is not, is that prayer is pacific: it brings lasting peace. Prayer is the practice that makes it possible to remain related to God and to the world without anxiety, even when the going gets tough. And it will get tough.
The peace of which I speak is not the result of flight from the world, withdrawal into some sacred precinct protected from distraction and suffering. No, the peace of which I speak is a serenity experienced in the midst of daily life, watered from the spring of regular, intentional prayer. Such prayer is perhaps best described by the great saint and doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila. She likens prayer to the watering of a garden, which unfolds in stages of increasing joy:
Stage I: The water is drawn manually from the well, a tedious effort akin to the first, difficult steps of developing a prayer practice. We feel like we are both garden and gardener, and it is hard work!
Stage II: The water is drawn mechanically from the well by means of a waterwheel. At this stage, our prayer practice becomes habitual, requiring less effort, and becomes quieter, less focused on words.
Stage III: The water flows naturally from a brook into the garden. Will, memory, and intellect fall silent; the one who prays is utterly passive. We are the garden. God is the gardener, “for it is He who does it all.” Our prayer becomes God praying within us and through us.
Stage IV: The water comes as rain, freely bestowed by God, bathing the one who prays in “heavenly love,” an experience of total union with God.[iv]
St. Teresa describes a practice of prayer that simply becomes like breathing. The presence and peace of God is carried with us in each moment, available to us always and everywhere if we are but attentive: and this from a woman constantly on the road founding convents, battling with the Spanish Inquisition, leading a great movement of reform within the Carmelite religious order that would transform the whole Church while still finding time to maintain a far-flung correspondence and write books that have inspired people of prayer for almost 500 years!
St. Teresa challenges our usual excuses: “I don’t have time to pray! I don’t know how to pray!” Do you have 10 minutes a day to give God your undivided attention, and maybe a piece of your mind? Do you know how to talk? Do you know how to listen? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then you have the makings to be the next great Christian mystic. It is not that the world must change before we can pray. Rather, we must pray to become the change we seek in the world.
When it comes to prayer, the real question is “What are you afraid of? What is really keeping you from beginning?” Perhaps you are afraid that if you started praying, you might actually find your desire for God increasing. And then you might have to rethink your entire life and its priorities.
Now that would be a great problem to have. Amen.
[i] Quoted in Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, Prayer: A History, p. 51.
[ii] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, p. 303.
[iii] Quoted in Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 306.
[iv] Paraphrase of quote in Zaleski & Zaleski, Prayer: A History, p. 176.