Christian art from 3rd century, in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla, depicting “Orans,” which is the symbol of the church interceding with hands outstretched. wdtprs.com
[re-post from 2015. One of my favs. It’s a bit lengthy, but won’t be posting until the weekend so you’ve got time!]
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 blended them with my own prayerful reflection. I paste my notes here:
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It is true that contemplative prayer, which is a prayer of surrender to God’s action in the soul and a simple gaze on His Truth, is considered in our Catholic Tradition to be the highest mode of God-loving prayer. But it is also true that 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.
In fact, I am convinced intercessory prayer is an essential counter-balance to other forms of prayer that can so easily devolve into an ego-focus on what I get out of prayer.
Some of the holiest people I’ve met in life are not those who are lost in contemplation for countless hours, but (mostly older) women who pray countless novenas for others’ intentions. The Scriptures tell us that even Jesus Himself in Paradise is not spending eternity lost in contemplation of the Father, but in ceaseless intercession before the Father on our behalf (Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:34). Again, in John chapter 17, we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ eternal dialogue with the Father, and it’s all about our well-being and Their desire for us to share in Their joy. No such thing in Christianity as absorption in God-alone. Always God-and. Love would have it no other way.
Even St. Paul tells us that the most profound prayer taught us by the Spirit is intercessory prayer (Rom. 8:26)! The quality of one’s theological virtue of charity is to be judged proportionate to the quality of one’s neighbor-oriented intercessory prayer.
But don’t think of intercessory prayer as trying to change God’s mind, or manipulate Him into doing our will. Behind our practice of asking, seeking and knocking there is a theology of what might be called “shared governance.” God has designed creation in such a way that He wishes to have us participate in His governance of history’s unfolding. Man is a “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, not a unilateralist, and He anoints us priests to that end.
That’s what the Incarnation proves. Jesus, the Great High Priest, has two wills — human and divine — that operate only in conjunction. This is an astounding thing! Here: Once God became man, God does absolutely nothing apart from human cooperation. Jesus is God’s way of dealing with creation, and in Him the re-creation of creation happens only in cooperation with man. The New Creation only comes about with human participation, united in Christ as His Body.
Prayer is the most direct and intimate way we participate in God’s re-creative, redeeming work. St. Thomas 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. Because God is love, and love is freedom, there is infinite space in Him for our freedom to join in the unfolding of His eternal dance!
So when you pray, pray like the prayer of the Liturgy: big, broad, bold and relentless. Especially relentless (Luke 18:1-8). The Liturgy, which emerges from the depths of God, is overloaded with petitions. Pray them over!
Yes, of course we always ask for things according to God’s holy will. This means never asking for anything against His nature, i.e. we never ask for injustice to be done, lies to prevail, greed to be indulged, evil to triumph or any other ungodly wish (James 4:3!). That said, asking according to God’s will does not mean God has already preordained every specific thing, so we then must magically discern what He wants in advance and ask for it. No! He genuinely wants us to contribute novelty, creativity and uniqueness to the unfolding of His will. “Surprise me,” He says. That’s a gigantic point.
But how God responds to our petition, incorporates into His grand design our ideas and intentions, is ultimately His business. “Man proposes, but God disposes.” He’s the Master craftsman, the artist, the potter. In the end, we must submit our novel ideas and good intentions to His providential will. “Thy will be done,” “let it be done to me.” Yes, Deus providebit, “God will provide,” but always according to His good pleasure, and mostly in the most unexpected and stunningly surprising ways.
But He always hears, and always responds.
Jesus prayed this way in the Garden of Gethsemane as He sweat blood. He said, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me,” but then submitted His request to the Father, “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Matt. 26:39). The answer of the Father was wildly beyond any imagining, grasped only by faith. Jesus drank the cup on the Cross and in the Resurrection the cup was “taken” from Him as He passed over from death to life. The whole of Jesus’ prayer was heard and answered by the Father, in the most unexpected way imaginable. Jesus also prayed from the Cross that His enemies would be pardoned, and He was heard. How? The Father laid the weight of the guilt of His enemies on Him as the price of pardon.
All prayer is answered, which is why you should always ask with trusting faith and a great sense of gravity that God hears and takes deadly seriously every word.
The pattern of all divine response to prayer is the Paschal Mystery, the dying and rising of Jesus.
Then there’s the Our Father, Jesus’ terse response to the disciples’ request for a “prayer catechism.” It’s really one extended intercession. Seven petitions, to be exact. Man, He is really serious about this kind of prayer! Oh, and note His use of pronouns — not “my Father” but “our Father,” and then onward with “us” and “we.” Jesus makes it eminently clear that interceding is an act of solidarity, that all prayer irrevocably binds us to God and others’ needs. Yes, to Jesus.
And that solidarity includes in it some seriously unpleasant characters, obviously, as Jesus makes this deceptively simple little “aside” in the middle of the prayer. You see, each of the seven petitions is about what God will do for us, but then Jesus coyly slips this in, “…as we forgive those who trespass against us.” A bloody conditional clause! Meaning our petition for forgiveness sounds more like this, “God, please forgive me only in the measure I forgive anyone who sins against me” (Matt. 6:14-15). Good Lord! Can’t you just cut us a break? Let us just be alone with you for even a little while without having to think about those bastards out there?
But alas! Real prayer always thrusts us back into messy life, yucky relationships, into the very bowels of hell. Or it isn’t prayer in any Christian sense. To not pray for others, especially really difficult others (Matt. 5:44), is only to seek escape from praying on God’s preferred prie-dieu, the Cross. The Cross is where all Christian prayer eventually lands us.
A last point. All prayer is a gift of grace, so beg God, before all else, to make you fall in love with intercessory prayer. Which is to say, beg God to help you fall in love with your brothers and sisters around you, whose keeper you are (Gen. 4:9-10). He clearly already has.
The preaching priest ended with a passage from St. Isaac the Syrian that is dearly loved in the Eastern spiritual tradition. Seems a fitting way to end, followed by the Prayer itself.
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.