“And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Luke 11: 9-10
In teaching about prayer, Jesus tells a parable about a man who goes to a friend in the middle of the night to ask to borrow three loaves of bread to offer an unexpected visitor. The man lacks good graces and refuses to leave even when he has been told it is too late. So, he keeps knocking until, finally, the friend relents and gives him the bread. At the heart of the practice of prayer is a constant asking, seeking, and knocking, says Jesus, and when we knock the door will always be opened.
In her essay Concerning the Our Father, Simone Weil points out that “Christ is always there at the door of our soul, wanting to enter in, although he does not force our consent. If we agree to this entry, he enters; directly we cease to want him, he is gone.” God and Christ are always available to us; the question is of our availability to them. The difficulty many of us have with prayer is not that God does not answer our prayer, but rather that we consistently forget to ask.
When I first entered religious life, the aspect of its enforced disciplines that I found most difficult was the requirement that we ask for almost everything we needed, including soap, toothpaste, and any other personal needs. To be certain, the danger in requiring this of quite young persons was that of infantilization. Some of us, myself included, probably lacked sufficient maturity and autonomy to begin learning how to give that up. Yet, what the practice did teach me was how difficult it is for an adult to be in a position of dependence. For the psychological issues about the practice, it carried a certain existential truth. We have no life apart from the One who has given life to us. At each moment and with each breath, we are dependent on Another.
Living in the awareness of this truth is not easy for us. We live out an illusion of independence and autonomy. Even as believers we tend to live a dichotomized life in relationship to God. When we say, “Act as if everything depended upon you, and pray as if everything depended upon God,” we tend to betray our experience of a split between action and prayer. Most of us, at least, hear these words as saying that we are to pray for God to complete what we are unable to accomplish on our own. Our asking and our acting are separate and discrete elements.
Theodore James Ryken spoke of an ideal for his Community: to live the non-dichotomized life of both Martha and Mary. This begins to occur in us when we are asking as we act, and acting as we ask. Jesus declared that he could do only what he saw the Father doing (John 5: 19). So it is with the Jesus in us, the Christ form we most deeply are. The Jesus in us does what the Father commands: the work that the Father gives him or her to do. In our experience this “work of God” is not always the same as the activities with which we preoccupy ourselves.
John S. Dunne describes faith as living “step by step out of the heart.” The attitude of prayer, the non-dichotomized life, is a life of “constant searching.” The first step in the searching is asking, seeking, and knocking. If Jesus is to live and act in us, we must ask him to do so. Yet, as much as asking for soap or toothpaste, praying is a humbling experience. It requires us to empty ourselves of our own agenda and then to ask God to do God’s work in us. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
Jesus says that as the man who won’t stop knocking on his neighbor’s door, we must ask, seek, and knock without ceasing. In this way, prayer is not a sometime activity of ours, but an entire way of living. “From the rising of the sun to its setting” we ask God to teach us, to be with us, to live God’s life in us. Ever so slowly any agenda of ours that is not God’s begins to atrophy. There is no God and us, for we desire only to live step by step in accord with God’s will.
This is actually the truth of things. We fail to recognize it because of a primal human narcissism that sees life and world only through the lens of our experience. Even the good we try to do tends to be bounded by the demands of our own egos. The man in the parable of Jesus shows poor manners and poor form, in the same way that we adults experience as irritating the child who never stops repeating her or his demands for whatever is the need at the moment. And yet, Jesus says this is the way of being vis-à-vis God that we are to cultivate. God wills to be in and for the world in us, but God requires our consent. We can live and work in a way that gives God the place we choose to give God in our lives, or we can allow God to be, to act, and to love in accord with God’s will through us. To do that, however, we must consent by, first and always, giving ourselves over to God in asking, seeking, and knocking.
There is a transcendent energy whose source is in heaven, and this flows into us as soon as we wish for it. It is a real energy; it performs actions through the agency of our souls and of our bodies.
We should ask for this food. At the moment of asking, and by the very act that we ask for it, we know that God will give it to us. We ought not to be able to bear to go without it for a single day, for when our actions only depend on earthly energies, subject to the necessity of this world, we are incapable of thinking and doing anything but evil. God saw “that the misdeeds of man were multiplied on the earth and that all the thoughts of his heart were continually bent upon evil.” The necessity that drives us toward evil governs everything in us except the energy from on high at the moment when it comes into us. We cannot store it.
Simone Weil, Concerning the Our Father