The Prayer of Incompetence and Failure

From time to time someone will ask how to pray ‘better’. When we tease out what is troubling the questioner, it usually turns out that he or she expects something to ‘happen’ in prayer; and when it doesn’t, feels a failure. Of course, something always  does ‘happen’ in prayer, but not always what we were expecting or hoping for. Remember Naaman and his indignation at being told to wash seven times in the Jordan when he was expecting Elisha to come out and perform some quasi-magical ceremony for him? We can be like that in prayer. We want things to go according to our notions, but God has his own ideas and they are rarely the same as ours.

One of the first lessons any of us has to learn is to pray as we can. We need to keep in  mind that God is in charge and rather keener on this prayer business than we are. Our enthusiasm tends to come by fits and starts. Not so God’s. He has been planning this moment of closeness with us from all eternity. That can be an encouraging thought when prayer seems dry and pointless, when all we experience is incompetence and failure. The secret is to keep at it, to go on trustingly with our prayer times. One of the lovely phrases George Herbert used to describe prayer was ‘the heart in pilgrimage’. Anyone who has undertaken a real pilgrimage, walked the Camino de Santiago, for example, will know that temptations to give up crowd in when one is tired and footsore, but one just goes on. So it is with prayer. Incompetence, failure, what do they matter when God has promised us his very self?

There are some simple guidelines for prayer on our main website, here.



OMG: three little letters representing Creator and creature, infinity and love; or the fool’s laughter, signifying nothing?

There is a world of difference between ‘Oh, my God!’ used as a virtually meaningless  exclamation of surprise and ‘O my God’ used as the language of prayer. They are as different as chalk and cheese, as far apart as the East is from the West. If one were to say how offensive the misuse of God’s name is to the ears of believers, one might be regarded as rather strange, ‘excessively’ religious, a bit of a pompous ass (donkey to our American friends). The acronym makes it no better. To triviliase the Infinite is surely the mark of the very shallow.

So what of ‘O my God’? We use those three little words to call upon the Almighty with joy, thanksgiving and contrition. They are our comfort in sorrow, our help in times of need; the only words necessary to adoration. They are
‘church-bells beyond the starres heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices: something understood.’

Can we reclaim them? Does it matter? Look at the front page of today’s BBC website or any newspaper and ask yourself how and why we came to this. If that doesn’t bring you to your knees, I don’t know what will.