Prayer and Reassurance

One of the things that has always puzzled me is the need many people have to be reassured that the community prays for them and their intentions. Not only that, but pray in a way they have specified. Now, while I understand devotion to a particular saint or to the Rosary, say, as a form of prayer, I would still want to insist that prayer itself is bigger than personal preference or devotion, bigger than any sacramental, no matter how good or holy. It is also, very definitely, not magic. God does not need certain formulae or rituals to agree to our requests. He knows what is good for us, and his love for us is unchanging. He likes us to bring our concerns and worries to him because what he desires is us, in all our mucky imperfection — everything implied in our being children of God — but superstition plays no part in that. We cannot, as it were, bend God to our will by our words. Love alone has the power to change things, and it is God’s weakness that he loves us infinitely.

Not an infantile relationship

Being children of God doesn’t mean being infantile in our relationship with him. Most of us have known the relationship with our own parents change over time, from the absolute dependence of babyhood, through the companionable adult years, to the caring roles we assume as our parents grow older and frailer. With God we never assume a caring role, but friendship with God is something we do strive for: a loving adult relationship. 

First steps in prayer

Our first steps in prayer are probably rather noisy. The analogy with babyhood is almost painfully accurate. We chatter away, merrily ‘ear-bashing’ God, bawling out our demands and frequently sulking when we don’t get what we want: God doesn’t listen to me; he never answers my prayers; I’m not going to talk to him or believe in him any more. Some of us never get beyond that stage. Hopefully, however, we shall mature and grow in grace and experience, then our prayer tends to become quieter. It is less about us and our wants, more about listening and simply being with God. Inevitably, wonder begins to take the place of preoccupation with our own concerns. A friendship develops; and as it deepens, so does our trust and acceptance. Friends don’t need many words, often none at all. The understanding is mutual. One of the amazing things about this kind of friendship is that it draws others in. The circle becomes wider and wider, as it were, to embrace first this person, then that, and ultimately, one hopes, the whole world. That is Christian prayer in operation, the prayer Christ prays unceasingly to the Father and into which we are drawn.

What reassurance do we need?

With such a powerful prayer as this, do we need the reassurance of certain formulae and rituals? I’d say not not, but we must remember we don’t all receive the same grace or in the same way. Those who use our prayerline receive a little generalised message saying we will pray for them, but those who email us in other ways or tweet or message us usually don’t — if we responded to all of them individually, there would be days we had no time to pray! So, please be reassured that your requests for prayer are acted upon by us and, more importantly, heard by the Lord himself. He will answer as and when he chooses. Trust Him.

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The Power of Symbols

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July had more symbolic significance than anything else for the course of the French Revolution, but even today it will be recalled in France with great republican fervour. We all have our own symbols. I ‘knew’ before I came here what a powerful symbol the American flag is for the people of the U.S.A., but seeing it proudly displayed on porches and in car lots, on all manner of buildings, both public and private, has brought home just how intense the focus on it is. I’m not sure we have anything really comparable in England, where no one gets very excited about anything except perhaps cricket and football, but the Church has an abundance of symbols, most of them simple and direct, like light, water, oil.

From time to time one hears someone saying that the Church needs to ‘update’ her use of symbols; that oil, for example, no longer has the significance it once had for people living in the Near East or around the Mediterranean. It’s true that oil is no longer used in quite the same way or for the same purposes, but that does not empty the symbol of its power. The life of the Church is expressed through sign and symbol: it is a language we all learn gradually as we come to see the impossibility of expressing through ordinary human words the extraordinary divine action in our lives. Symbols are powerful things and shouldn’t be underestimated.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail