In the middle of this weekend’s blizzard that buried the East Coast, my 3-year old nephew (who lives in Philadelphia) left me a pointed voicemail in my dual role as uncle and priest, the benefits of which he is assiduously trying to figure out. Clearly, he was eyeing up the 2 feet of snow that had already fallen in his backyard. Remember what 2 feet of snow looked like when you were 1-foot-8? Paradise! But, alas, the wind chill was negative 15 — paradise lost, or at least delayed. “Uncle Lou,” the voicemail pleaded with piqued urgency, “can you tell God or Jesus to stop the wind but not the snow. Soon. Thanks. Bye.”
As a priest, I have an obligation to pray for intentions that people bring to me. As a priest at Notre Dame, this obligation necessarily includes 2 a.m. requests from stressed-out Dillon-ites to pass tests they haven’t studied for, and affirmatives to dates that — let’s face it — they have little chance at landing (but keep hoping, my fellow Big Red, miracles do happen!). It also includes annual autumn requests from plaid-panted alumni for football wins, especially against ranked opponents, and grandchildren acceptances to the incoming freshmen class. And you know what? I pray for them all. (Well, almost all — one BC alum asked me to pray for a win over Notre Dame this Fall, for ecumenism’s sake, but I somehow let that one slip my list … )
Who am I to judge? Especially since I throw in my own share of self-interested-wishes-disguised-as-pious-approaches-to-the-Almighty — flights taking off on time, specified annoying people losing my number and e-mail, unprepared homilies making an impact, etc, etc. So, trusting fully in God’s ability to sort through all our self-centered wishes and stay focused on the big picture of universal salvation, I dutifully offer all these petitions up to God. But the whole process does raise the troubling question …
How often do we allow our prayer to grow beyond our own grown-up version of “Can you please stop the wind but not the snow?” If I made a clear-eyed examination of my prayer, I suspect I would be a bit embarrassed to realize how much of it fits pretty snugly into the formula: “Can you please eliminate the struggles of my life, and if possible, without removing any of the upside?”
Now, I do not wish to suggest that prayers of petition for improvement of situations in our life are invalid, or are always disguised expressions of self-centered wishes. On the other hand, I have learned this much from nearly 40 years of trying to dialogue with God: almost inevitably some of our prayers are self-centered wishes. And when they are, prayer (and, indeed, our relationship with God) can become, not an intense encounter with the Other who leads us precisely beyond ourselves into love of God and neighbor. But rather, an intense encounter with Me. And Me is fairly often concerned with one thing: leading Me into ever-greater Me-ness (defined broadly as the universe, its 6.8 billion inhabitants, and all their activities working together to solve my problems, or at least not getting in my way of solving them).
It’s not that the prayer “God, help me land this particular job” is not an authentic expression of an entirely valid longing. Rather, it seems that Christian prayer invites us to offer the petition within a consciousness that transcends our own personal gain.
There is, it seems to me, an important difference between “God, help me land this job” and “God, help me to see and understand your plan and vocation for my life.” The former is often a slightly older and more complex form of “Please stop the wind but not the snow.” While the latter prayer tugs us (often not without tentativeness and fear on our part, but that’s natural) beyond our own wants and needs, and places our lives squarely in the hands of God and at the service of others. “Lord, show me what you would have of my life. Give me a life where I might find you. Lead me where my life might serve others.” The way to intensify the first type of prayer is often to repeat it more and more frequently. The way to intensify the second type of prayer is to stop talking, and wait and rest in God. This alone points to the efficacy of the second!
Such prayer, of course, requires us to relinquish a huge amount of control to God, which is precisely why it is a more difficult prayer to make. Yet, if we think about it, we cannot help but realize how much more room this type of prayer provides — both for God to act in our lives and for us to recognize God’s activity. Perhaps, if we think of prayer less as telling God a bunch of things God already knows and asking God to fix them, and more as clearing space within us for God to lead us and others to true peace, we can see the advantage of the latter prayer. The first type of prayer — “Help land me this job, date, grade, etc” — fills our heart and mind with more of us — our wants and needs. The second type of prayer —”Lead me where you will” — invites our selves to quiet down and encounter the God of Providence, who holds our entire lives in the mysterious, but gentle and loving, palms of His hands.
Not sure how to break this to my nephew.
This week’s Faith Point was written by Fr. Lou DelFra. Fr. Lou is the director of bible studies and chaplain to the ACE program. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.