As I prepare for our Lenten observance, I reread James Alison's Prayer: a case study in mimetic anthropology today. It is a brilliant interpretation of the New Testament teaching about prayer, emphasizing Matthew 6:1-18 (part of which appears as the Gospel text for Ash Wednesday) with more than a glance at Luke's "importunate widow" (Luke 18:1-8) and a couple of all-too-brief, but provocative, observations about the "Our Father."
In essence, Alison argues that the anthropology operative in the New Testament assumes that human beings are constituted by their relationships all the way through, so to speak. This "I" is much more highly malleable that it is comfortable to admit. And even more difficult: it is not the "I" that has desires, it is desire that forms and sustains the "I." The "I" is something like a snapshot in time of the relationships that preexist it and one of whose symptoms it is . . .
. . . in this picture, prayer is going to start from the presupposition that we all desire according to the desire of the other. It is going to raise the question: Yes, but which other? We know that their is a social other which gives us desire and moves us the way and that. But is there Another Other, who is not part ofthe social other, and who has an entirely different pattern of desire into which it is seeking to induct us? That of course is the great Hebrew question, the discovery of God who is not-one-of-the-gods, and our texts on prayer are part of our way into becoming part of the great Hebrew answer. (Alison, p. 4)
Prayer, then, becomes the way in which we "detox" from the identity we have taken from the social other, so as to become capable of taking on an identity formed by God. It becomes the urgent reason why we need to pray: so as to allow the One who knows what is good for us, unlike we ourselves, whose desire is for us and for our fruition, unlike the social other and its violent traps, to gain access to re-creating us from within, to giving us a "self," an "I of desire" that is in fact a constant flow of treasure. We are asking, in fact to become a symptom of [God's] pattern of desire, rather than that of the social other which ties us up into becoming so much less. (Alison, p. 18)
It isn't that "I" have desires, but that desires make me who "I" am. Here we find the principle expressed by St. John of the Cross: we become like the object of our love. At the evening of life, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own way of acting. ("Sayings of Light and Love," 57) Prayer is the techne by which we learn to love as God desires, to become what God desires; one who desires God. And so prayer is a kind of death - the way of the Cross - in which our old "I" is crucified with Christ so that we can be raised up into eternal life, the desire of God and the desire for God.
Be careful what you pray for, indeed.