Julie D. recently offered a great quote from one of her books that reminded me of something I read in Pope Benedict’s Journey to Easter. I thought I’d type up some good excerpts since I know quite a few people who have wanted to read that book but haven’t gotten to it yet.
The Holy Father starts out one of his chapters asking a question that’s always perplexed me about prayer:
Is it right and fitting to beg something of God, or is perhaps praise, adoration, thanksgiving, a disinterested prayer that is the sole adequate response to the transcendence and greatness of God?
A friend and I were recently emailing about this. I mean, if I want ice cream, can I ask God for that? Or is that too selfish or small or unimportant to bother him with?
In his answer, the Pope refers to the Old Testament story of Queen Esther’s total dependence on God and prayer (almost a demand) that he help her, praising this childlike faith:
The little ones, those who have need of God’s help and tell him so, understand the truth much better than the intelligent who, refusing the prayer of petition, admit solely the disinterested praise of God, and in fact construct a human self-sufficiency which does not correspond to the human necessity expressed in Esther’s words, “Help me!” Behind this lofty stand which will not trouble God with our little needs is often found the doubt that God might not have the power to respond to the realities of our life.
I think this may have something to do with my recent struggles with prayer. Lately I resort to lofty, stiff prayer not just because it seems somehow “correct, ” but because it would seem silly or, maybe, ineffective to ask for what it is I really want.
Pope Benedict implores us not to make this mistake:
What are the possible subject for Christian prayer? What things can we ask from God’s goodness? The Lord’s reply is very simple: everything. Everything that is good…With God we can really speak as children to their Father. Nothing is excluded. The goodness and power of God knows only one limitation: evil.
The prayer of the simple is the true Christian prayer, that prayer which with a fearless confidence brings all the reality and the poverty of life under the eyes of omnipotent goodness.
He reminds us that prayer has another purpose, however. This was a much-needed reminder for me: I tend to think of the definition of prayer as something like, “When you ask God for stuff.” But, of course, true prayer has a much higher, much better purpose.
We can ask all that is good. But as part of this unboundedness, prayer is a road to conversion, the way of divine education, the way of grace: by praying we must learn which things are good or not…Prayer separates light from darkness in our life…and makes us new beings. Therefore it is so important that in prayer we do in fact present our whole life before the eyes of God.
In prayer we learn renunciation of our own desires. We begin to desire good things, to become good by talking to him who is goodness itself. The divine response is not simply a confirmation of our life but a process of transformation. […]
This will be the true answer to prayer, if we not only have good things, but are also good ourselves.
So, to answer the question my friend and I wondered about, yes, you can tell God about your ice cream craving and ask him to send some your way. In fact, it’s a good thing to have such a childlike dependence on God. But, as Pope Benedict says at the closing of his meditation, asking for specific, earthly things is really asking too little, as those things provide only “scraps of happiness”. We should use prayer as a path to the ultimate happiness, the root of all joy: “Joy is finally nothing other than God himself, the Holy Spirit. Aim at God. Seek ‘joy, ‘ the Holy Spirit, and have all.”
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