The National Catholic Review

A few weeks ago, a family friend asked me a question about prayer. "What's the point," he wondered "of praying for what you want when we're taught in the Our Father to say 'Thy will be done.'?" Since then, I've struggled to articulate a coherent response -- having promised him a more considered opinion than I was capable of on the spot, in the car. 

Michelle Francl-Donnay, blogger, columnist and frequent presence in the comments section of this blog, has a recent article that I found helpful and insightful in my conundrum. She recounts being asked to pray for friends and what that means. In so doing, she offers a reflection that gets at the general posture of "asking" for things in prayer:

In assuring each of my friends that I would pray for them, I wasn’t offering to make some generic noise in the direction of God’s ear and move on. I meant that I was willing to wrestle with God on their behalf, to cry aloud to God that He might hear them. To ask God for what they need, specifically and repeatedly.

Walter Brueggemann, in his short book “Praying the Psalms,” notes that we often strive for a “cool, detached serenity” in prayer. We want to approach God gracefully and well collected.

Yet the prayers and songs that are the psalms, Brueggemann points out, are uncomfortably concrete. The psalmists do not shy away from asking God for exactly what they desire, couching their petitions in everyday words and images. Wheat and water. Bees and mud.

But asking for what we most need or want -- or think we want -- is not a contradiction of then praying "Thy will be done." She quotes Karl Rahner discussing this very same question:

Rahner advises us to look instead at Christ praying, gasping out His prayers that the cup might pass Him by. He is not afraid to ask directly. He is sure He is heard. And yet simultaneously He offers His unconditional submission to what God wills.

Again, the rest is here.

Timothy O'Brien, SJ

Comments

6466379 | 7/31/2011 - 5:07pm
Jesus says, “If you ask the Father for anything in my name he will give it to you.” Many times we ask and do not receive. What in heaven’s name is Jesus talking about? It has to do with the ever existing tension between the human will and the Divine Will, between “my will” and “Thy Will” as the Our Father puts it. The following words are key . Maybe  working on them  may help.
The words are,  IF - ANYTHING - MY NAME. “If” is a conditional word presupposing that certain prerequisites will be met. It’s an “ify” situation meaning maybe it won’t happen. There‘s lots of “ifs“ in scripture.. What won‘t happen? Anything.
“Anything?” Yes, the Father is first and foremost a realist, rooted entirely in Divine perception which is all good.  Human perception vacillates with the ebb and flow of emotions and can be  anything but good as God is good.  Anything that doesn’t exist as  good, namely really real in the mind of God, is, in fact, not part of the Divine “anything.” In  reality its a “nothing” no matter how real it may appear to be from the human point of view.  Jesus is concerned only with the really real - the “nothing”  has nothing to do with  Jesus.  So, “My Name.” Jesus says, is all about “Truth” meaning that any prayer not dealing with the truth, with truth as it relates to the God is futile “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals” that is meaningless. God cannot be at war with himself! He cannot support falsehood no matter how well intentioned it is. Prayer is all about reality as God sees it, about the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! It’s about Jesus!
So, when we pray do it as Jesus did, “Thy kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven … Father let this thing pass from me, yet not my will but yours be done. There is no other way! It’ purpose? To grow in love!
JANICE JOHNSON | 7/30/2011 - 2:06pm
Fr. Timothy and Michelle,  at my milestone age of 75, the issues of forgiveness and reconciliation are paramount in my spiritual and emotional llife.  I learned a different way of praying from reading a book "The Healing Light" by Agnes Sanford (1897-1982), I devised two prayers based on her ideas.  God is all loving and all powerful. The statements of Jesus eg. ask and you shall receive and the place of faith in one's prayer life.  These are the prayers.  I'd appreciate your comments.  Are they theologically sound?  Off the wall??

" I forgive ....in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and I give thanks to God that .... is forgiven. Amen."

"I pray to you Abba Father for my reconciliation with .... in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ and I give thanks to you, Abba, that we are reconciling.  Amen."
MICHELLE FRANCL-DONNAY DR | 7/30/2011 - 10:12am
Actually, no.  I think that is precisely the prayer that Rahner is suggesting we should avoid. (The piece he wrote, which was orginally a sermon delivered shortly after the end of WW II is called "The Prayer of Need" and is collected in the little book "The Need and The Blessing of Prayer" and it's a great read).

I speak, from personal experience, to say that that is not my way of proceeding in prayer either. 

You asked about the people that are not being prayed for (fiercely or otherwise) and I believe that prayer is effective, here and now, and I also believe that God abandons no one, even if they are not praying nor being prayed for.  I don't think these stances are mutually exclusive. 

What I am saying is that I can believe that God listens and acts when I pray, and that I come to that prayer willing to ask for what I desire and to willingly accede to what God desires.  And that in the same way I believe in the mystery of Jesus Christ - fully God and fully man - this is also a mystery.  

A Jesuit scientist friend defines a mystery as a question which continues to be interesting, even after one has essayed an answer.  The question of petitionary prayer is, by that definition,  a mystery indeed.  
MICHELLE FRANCL-DONNAY DR | 7/29/2011 - 10:00pm

C.S. Lewis probably lays it out far better than I can in his essay The Efficacy of Prayer:  "The reality is doubtless not comprehensible by our faculties. But we can at any rate try to expel bad analogies and bad parables. Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God. Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate."

Ultimately we cannot know the mind of God, His ways are not ours.   I am willing to sit with the mystery of a God who welcomes my petitions, and who simultaneously is attentive and responsive to the person who's needs are unprayed for.