The Catechism or Outline of Faith of the Episcopal Church says, “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” It goes on to describe the seven principal kinds of prayer: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession and petition. You can read about them on pages 856-857 of the Prayer Book. This is just covering prayer. It doesn’t say anything about the variety of meditation practices: centering prayer, lectio divina, the Ignatian exercises, the Jesus prayer, praying with icons, or contemplative prayer!
We can make prayer a very complicated business. In fact, it can get so complicated and raise so many questions that we just give up on it altogether. We worry about “doing it right.” We decide to leave it to the experts – the monks and nuns in their monasteries.
Then there is our doubt about the efficacy of prayer. We don’t think prayer really has the power to change things, much less influence God. We are far too advanced in our theology for such childish notions. For all intents and purposes, we are practical atheists and so we don’t put much stock in prayer.
Perhaps it is time to get back to basics. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” When it comes to prayer, St. Paul keeps it simple. He breaks it down to asking God for what we need. Here he is consistent with Jesus and the whole thrust of the Bible. Jesus taught his disciples to pray by asking for a series of petitions: your kingdom come, your will be done, give us our daily bread, forgive us our debts, don’t lead us into temptation, deliver us from evil. Ask, seek, knock on the door, persistently demand a response, expect God to be at least as generous in responding as a half way decent parent.
For Jesus, prayer is a simple matter of asking our Father/Mother for what we need with child-like trust. Prayer is the means whereby we open ourselves to the answers we seek and the power to fulfill our petitions. Jesus taught that God answers prayer and that prayer has the power to change our lives and the lives of others.
The Bible is full of stories about prayer changing things – even changing God’s will! Moses is a good example, siding with the idolatrous Israelites against God in today’s reading from Exodus: “Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on our people . . . And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Whatever theological difficulties this passage raises – and there are many – the God of Moses is far from indifferent to prayer.
As Anthony De Mello notes,
All our philosophical objections notwithstanding, the Bible shows us a God who leaves himself wide open to being influenced by the prayers of those he loves; a God who will reveal his plans to his prophets precisely so that they will make him change his mind and his plans through the power of their prayers; a God who has, by his own decree, subjected himself to the mighty force of persistent prayer.
God invites the interpersonal exchange, the give and take of prayer. It is a mark of loving relationship, even when it is difficult, dry, or oppositional. We never advance so much in prayer as to move beyond the simple imperative of asking for what we need. It is this vulnerability and trust that opens the crack in the door through which God’s power flows into our lives.
In one of his homilies, Abba Macarius of Egypt claims that even the gravest sinner can aspire to become a mystic if he is willing to turn to God in vulnerability and trust:
For even a baby; to weak for anything and unable to walk to his mother on his own little feet, can yet roll about and scream and cry because he wants her. Then the mother is sorry for him, and at the same time pleased that the little one desires her so much. Therefore, as he cannot come to her, she, moved by his longings and by her own love of her child, takes him up and sweetly fondles and feeds him. Thus also deals the loving God with the soul who comes to him and longs for him.
What a beautiful image of God our Mother! Our sheer desire for God, regardless of our worthiness or unworthiness, our dependence upon God, and our trust that God will do for us what we can not do for ourselves are enough to bring us into God’s presence and power. As Anthony De Mello points out, “Any child can do this. That’s the trouble with so many of us: we have ceased to be children, so we have forgotten how to pray.”
We need to keep it simple when it comes to prayer. De Mello describes what he calls two fundamental “laws of prayer” that can help us to pray well. They are concrete proposals and their efficacy can be observed in practice. I invite you to experiment with them and judge the results for yourself.
The first law of prayer is faith: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let our requests be made known to God.” St. Paul instructs us to blend our petitions with thanksgiving, believing that we already have received what we need! Commenting on this passage, De Mello asks, “When friends give you a check, do you first wait to have it cashed in the bank before you thank them? When you realize that God is going to give you what you are asking for, that is the moment to begin to thank him.”
Years ago I had a spiritual director named Sarah. At the end of each of our sessions together, she would pray for specific needs that emerged in our conversation, asking God to provide them for me. She always ended the prayer by saying “Thank you” rather than “Amen.” It always struck me as odd, until I read this passage from Philippians again. She knew what it means to pray with faith.
Jesus taught this first law of prayer: “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” He repeatedly noted when he healed people that it was their faith that made them whole, and he admitted his powerlessness to heal or do other signs in his hometown of Nazareth in the absence of faith.
Prayer is powerless in the absence of faith, yet it isn’t something we can force ourselves to have. Just the willingness to bring our needs to God is a start. “Faith comes as a gift from just exposing yourself to God’s company. The more you deal with God the more you begin to realize that nothing is impossible for him.” This is a matter of experience, a trust that develops in the context of relationship.
Jesus also taught the second law of prayer: forgiveness. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” If prayer is powerless in the absence of faith, it also is powerless in the presence of resentment, envy and rivalry. If we do not forgive, our capacity to experience forgiveness is blocked.
The peace of God, which is the fruit of prayer, is the lived experience of reconciliation: being of one mind with each other, thus sharing the mind or consciousness of Christ.
Sometimes, the prayer of forgiveness can take a while. Jose Osuna is an ex-convict who now works with Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, helping people move from prison to productive lives and escape the gang culture. Six years ago, he witnessed his son’s murder in front of their house. It was a racial killing: his son was murdered by two black men for being Mexican.
Since that time, Jose has done a lot of inner work trying to let go of the hatred of black men he harbors. But he couldn’t let go completely until he found himself in Atlanta earlier this year for a training event at the Martin Luther King Center. While there, he walked into Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had preached and taught and envisioned the Beloved Community.
Jose reports that the moment he walked into the Church he broke down. He sank into a pew and sobbed uncontrollably for about ten minutes. When he finally got himself together, he noticed a puddle of tears gathered in the seat of the pew in front of him. He was about to get some paper towel to clean it up when he heard a voice. Now, Jose believes in God, and as he describes himself, “I’m kind of hard headed, so God doesn’t send me subliminals, he speaks to me directly.” The voice told him, “Let the tears soak into the wood. Then, a part of you will be here forever.” At that moment, he says, his hatred of black men was lifted completely, and he was able to forgive his son’s killers.
What is more, while moving through this process of forgiveness, Jose had three different men come into his office at Homeboy Industries. All of them were men he had committed some act of violence against while he was in prison. Each one of the came into his office and said, “I forgive you. And I need your help.” They are now receiving services with Jose’s assistance.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Jose is discovering the power of prayer unleashed through forgiveness, and receiving the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
Pray for what you need. Pray with faith and forgiveness. It works.
 The Book of Common Prayer, p. 856.
 Philippians 4:5b-7.
 Matthew 6:9-13.
 Exodus 32:12,14.
 Anthony De Mello, Contact with God, pp. 73-74.
 Quoted in De Mello, p. 69,
 De Mello, p. 49.
 Philippians 4:5b-6.
 De Mello, p. 59.
 Mark 11:24
 De Mello, p. 58.
 Mark 11:25.