I heard a fantastic homily, while on retreat last June, on Jesus’ words: “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” Most homiletic explanations of why we ask God for things I find to be confusing. But this preacher nailed it. He made some stunning points that I tried to capture later in my journal. As is my custom, I took the summary notes from the homily and synthesized them with my own prayerful reflection. I paste my notes here:
Although it is true that contemplative prayer, which is both a prayer of surrender to God’s action in the soul and a simple gaze on Truth, is considered the highest mode of God-loving prayer, intercessory prayer is the highest form of neighbor-loving prayer. The Catechism says it succinctly: “Asking on behalf of another [is] characteristic of a heart attuned to God’s mercy … in intercession, he who prays looks not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others, even to the point of praying for those who do him harm” (#2635). One who daily speaks to God on behalf of others is loving them well. It’s a very helpful complement to other forms of prayer that can easily devolve into an ego-focus on personal satisfaction. Some of the holiest people I’ve met in life — and holy here means for me what it means for Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange: “Having one’s thoughts populated more by considerations of the welfare of others than by considerations of one’s own welfare” — are those mostly older women who pray countless novenas for others’ intentions. The holy Scriptures tell us that even the Lord Himself in Paradise is not engaged in contemplation but intercession [Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:34]. Or think of John 17 — Jesus’ inner-Trinitarian prayer is all about us, not just God-alone absorption. Even St. Paul tells us that the deep prayer the Spirit teaches us is intercessory prayer [Romans 8:26]! The quality of one’s theological virtue of charity is to be judged proportionate to the quality of one’s neighor-oriented intercessory prayer.
But don’t think of intercession as trying to change God’s mind, or manipulate Him into doing your will. Behind our practice of petition there is a theology of shared governance. God has so designed the world that He wishes to have man participate in His governance of history. Man is the “priest of nature and of grace” whom God has fixed like a hinge between heaven and earth. God is a God of synergy, of collaboration, and not a unilateralist. That’s what the Incarnation proves. Jesus has two wills [human and divine] that operate only in conjunction. In the Incarnation we see an astounding fact: God does absolutely nothing apart from human cooperation. Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s way of dealing with creation. The re-creation of creation happens only in cooperation with man. The New Creation only comes about with human participation. And prayer is the most direct and intimate way we partcipate in God’s re-creative, redeeming work. Aquinas says that we ask, seek and knock not to change the divine disposition but to bring about what God has disposed to be achieved only by means of prayer. So when you pray, pray like the prayer of the Liturgy: big, broad and bold. The Liturgy is loaded with petitions. Pray them over!
Yes, of course we always ask for things according to God’s holy will — which means never asking against His nature; that is, we never ask for injustice to be done, or evil or for lies to triumph, or some such. But asking according to His will does not mean that He has already preordained every specific thing, which we then have to hope we magically know in advance when we ask. No! He genuinely wants us to contribute novelty and uniqueness to the unfolding of His will. But how He responds to our petition and incorporates our ideas and intentions? That’s ultimately His business. He’s the Master craftsman, the artist. What we must do in the end is submit our novel ideas and good intentions to His providential will. Deus providebit, “God will provide” according to His good pleasure; in unexpected ways mostly. Jesus did that kind of praying in the Garden [of Gethsemane]. He said, “Let this cup pass,” but then submitted His idea to the Father — “but not my will, thine.” The answer of the Father was wildly beyond human imagining: the Cross and Resurrection. These were actually the Father’s response to Jesus’ petitions. “Let this cup pass” happened as a Pass-over from death to life. So He was heard! … And Jesus prayed for His enemies to be pardoned — and He was heard! The Father laid the guilt and sin of His enemies on Him as the means to pardon them.
The Our Father, which is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request for a “prayer catechism,” is really one extended petition. It’s pure intercessory prayer. Seven petitions, actually. So clearly the Lord is highlighting for us that interceding is key to real Christian prayer that includes love of neighbor in it. It’s not just a nice or quaint pious practice. And I love Jesus’ little aside that punched home that prayer is not just a me-God thing, but a me-God-neighbor thing. He sticks in that little aside to the Our Father: “…as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Can’t you just give us a break God and let us be with you for a while and forget about those bastards out there? Oh, yes, we need to withdraw time and again to be refreshed by God. But real prayer has to always thrust us back into real life and yucky relationships, or it isn’t prayer in the Christian sense. To not engage in praying for others, especially difficult others, is really an escape from praying on God’s preferred prie-dieu, the Cross, which is where all Christian prayer eventually lands us.
But remember that all prayer is a gift, so if you don’t much fancy petitioning God ask Him to help you fall in love with it. Because He is clearly in love with it.
He ended with a passage from St. Isaac the Syrian that is beloved in the Eastern spiritual tradition:
What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.