The narrative of the human family reveals many spiritual realities, one of which is that people of good will want to pray. This desire can be seen across the religious traditions and cultural yearnings of the world.
Oftentimes this pining for a life of prayer can lead a person to important questions about the spiritual life. For example, the perennial question: “What do I say when I pray?”
While the answer to this inquiry might seem obvious to some, for others it poses a real dilemma and source of confusion. When a person prays, she wants to know what to say and how to say it properly.
The implicit fear is that somehow by praying wrongly her petition will not be heard, or that she will offend God, or that the fruits of the spiritual life will not be given.
In such an arena of fears, it’s important for a person to recognize that she’s most likely already praying more than she realizes, and that the “best prayer” is the one that she’s already praying.
Beyond this basic recognition, however, there are some more specific answers that can guide a person through the conversation of prayer.
When praying, a person can do what fallen humanity does best, namely, she can complain. While an easy human response, it’s also very helpful to our spiritual life since people complain to those who care about them. We can imagine the danger of complaining to an adversary or someone who is critical of us. We complain to loved ones in order to be consoled and encouraged.
As a person complains to God, she forms an intimacy with him. She may find that her prayer flows more easily and becomes an opportunity for renewal and rejuvenation.
This counsel is not without foundation as we see the figure of Abraham, the spiritual father of all Jews, Christians, and Muslims, complain to God. As Abraham is called out of Ur and follows the Lord’s summons to the Promised Land, he is assured a son.
Arriving in his new home, he is distressed that he still has not been blessed with posterity. In one of the first recorded prayers of the great patriarch, he expresses his restlessness and complains to God. In the encounter, God welcomes Abraham’s transparency and comforts him.
In commenting on this scene, Pope Francis observed: “I won’t say that Abraham loses patience, but he complains to the Lord. This is what we learn from our father Abraham: complaining to the Lord is a form of prayer.”
The pope continued by teaching that faith is not just silent acceptance or a “certainty that secures us from doubt or perplexity,” but is a means by which we can “argue with God and show him our bitterness without ‘pious pretenses’.”
As a person, therefore, opens her heart and freely complains to God, she distances herself from the “pious pretenses” which rob prayer of its real power to heal and transform a person’s interior life. Rather than worrying about praying right, the person is actually praying and speaking to God from the inner recesses of her own heart, and not merely through the formalized prayers of ancestors and tradition.
While the formalized prayers are appreciated and can be of some assistance to the person, they are empowered and take on depth precisely through the particular spiritual life of the person herself.
In this simple exercise of prayer, the person is less worried about overwhelming or offending God, and a new awareness of God’s majesty emerges as the person grows in the realization that God is all-powerful and can take whatever she dishes out and that he loves her and wants her sincerity.
The person understands more profoundly that God truly welcomes a genuine self-disclosure of her disappointments, joys, anger, consolations, and confusion, and does not need the empty lip service of misplaced piety.
This lesson on prayer is important for people of good will. As secularism and other schools of thought try to dismantle the spiritual identity of the person, it’s essential that the casualness and easiness of prayer be emphasized and that people find encouragement and direction in their desire to pray.
This lesson is also a timely reminder for the West and our world today. As we look at the international scene and all its complexities: world hunger, wars, displaced peoples, and nuclear arms, and as we enter a new presidential administration with uncertain answers to fundamental questions, we can avoid shallow prayers and pray to God with sincere hearts asking that justice and peace be given to all people.