Herod had Peter taken into custody and put in prison under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. He intended to bring him before the people after Passover. Peter thus was being kept in prison, but prayer by the Church was fervently being made to God on his behalf.
On this Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we read in Acts of Herod’s imprisonment of Peter and of his miraculous escape. As Peter is jailed, however, we are told that “prayer by the Church was fervently being made to God on his behalf.” One of the most difficult aspects of belief for us who are formed in a secular age is prayer, especially prayer of intercession. Living in a disenchanted universe and with the cultural pulsations of the centrality of the human person and the idolization of our own individuality, we do not readily comprehend the significance of praying to God about the situations in which we and our world find ourselves. We do not readily, or perhaps not at all, really believe that something we do or say can influence God to change in any radical way the laws of nature and the outcome of natural forces. So, what are we doing when we pray to God for someone or something in particular?
As we have seen in the stories of Abraham that we have been reading from Genesis in recent days, faith is a “blind leap,” a radical re-orientation of our perspective on life. It is the turning of our gaze from self-preoccupation toward the One who transcends and is beyond all. This call to profound change and re-orientation has always been a challenging matter, but it is even more profoundly difficult for us who have been formed with little or no real reference to transcendence. Even our sense of religion is basically secular in its moralistic and doctrinal obsessions. Thus, for us to even dare to really pray, not merely to engage in a social religious activity or recitation but to really dare to relate openly and transparently with God, is a character changing, if not shattering, experience.
The most analogous experience that most of us know to this challenge of prayer is the tension we experience in our human encounters. Last week some of us attended an international meeting in which we were challenged and in which we challenged each other to speak more honestly and openly. This, of course, is a challenge we experience every day. When I pause and reflect on my daily life, I discover how much I resist and withdraw from a more honest encounter and a deeper relationship with others. We are consistently censoring our communication. Of course, to do so out of compassion is absolutely necessary. We don’t need to say everything we think, especially those things that are judgments of others. The tension and resistance, however, that we most experience is how much of ourselves are we to give to the other with whom we are speaking and relating. To varying degrees, every encounter with another is a test of our trust and faith. How much do we dare to reveal ourselves and to open ourselves to the change and growth that a truly mutual encounter can initiate in us? How will coming to love this other require a change and re-orientation of my life?
Most of us crave and yet resist intimacy (with ourselves, with each other, and with God and the world). Even in very good and somewhat intimate conversations, I am constantly measuring the level of my trust and thus the degree of my openness and honesty. I long to know and to be known, and yet the initial hurdle of trust and honest openness is so difficult to clear. To say what we truly think and feel is to leave ourselves open to the possibility, and what often feels like probability, of not being heard or responded to. Or, perhaps even worse, it opens us to the possibility that we are somehow deeply mistaken in our own thoughts and worldview and will need to change.
Yesterday in a conversation with a friend, he pointed out how much we as Americans value willfulness and assertion. So many of our conversations and debates at every level consist of one after another asserting his or her immutable convictions. Given our ego-encapsulated worldview, relationship for us consists mainly in dominating the other and manipulating them to think or do what we want. There’s little wonder, then, that speaking out our deepest needs, fears, desires to God would seem futile, once we understand that God cannot be controlled or manipulated by us. We can cynically believe that since God does not come down to change the natural course of things (what another age saw as miraculous), then there is no point to expressing our desire that things sometimes be other than they are.
We do not, however, only encounter another in truth and trust because we want something or other from them. We do not crave an intimacy which is our dominance and control over the other —at least if we are relatively healthy. What we long for is an intimacy with the other that allows each of us to know that we are with and for each other and that we are willing to change those things that keep us distant from each other. When we speak from our hearts, we are not just asserting ourselves or being willful. In fact, quite the opposite. When we dare to speak what is usually unspeakable for us, we are opening ourselves to the possibility of deep and transformative change. In the act of speaking my deepest fear or desire to another, I am actually “giving it up.” The refusal to speak it out is, in fact, a refusal to offer it up, to submit it, and myself, to change. This is why we withhold in human encounter and in prayer. If I give myself in love to this other, what will that do to me? How will that call me to change?
So, are we “being silly” when we plead with God to change what we feel unable to bear, or ask for something we really desire (even if perhaps we wish we didn’t), or implore God to bring some safety and peace to those who are ravaged by violence, war, famine, and persecution? In much of daily speaking, we are engaged solely in expression. One person expresses his or her convictions, followed by the next person. In prayer, however, expression is the initial step toward encounter and communication. When we speak from the heart, rather than merely from the head, our words carry with them the expression of who we really and truly are; they manifest our own tentativeness and fear. That expression opens us to encounter the other (Other) in a relationship that has the power to change how we think, how we feel, and how we live.
“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Hebrews 5:7) According to Hebrews, when Jesus prayed he did so with “fervent cries and tears.” He cried out that, if it was God’s will, he be saved from death. And Hebrews tells us that “he was heard. . . . ” Yet, Jesus was crucified. How, then, can it be said that he was heard? Through his prayer, Jesus’ relationship to Reality was somehow changed by God. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. For you are with me.”
We hold back, in relationship and in prayer. Although we want the other to be with us, we want it on our terms. True encounter, and true prayer, requires of us that we pray “with reverent submission.” it is not submission in the sense of dissolving ourselves and being controlled by the other. It is rather a submission to the truth of things, a truth we can only come to know by breaking out of our ego-encapsulation and encountering reality, primarily through encounter with the personal other (Other). When we pray to God about what we really want, and think, and feel, we do so in the willing submission of it as potentially mistaken and always partial. We give over our own assertiveness and willfulness in order to be brought, in love, more fully into Reality. This is only possible for us as we develop increasingly a humility about our view and our way and a trust that in the way things truly are God will always be with and for us.
The ironic questioning of God’s speeches exposed Job’s restricted knowledge of the universe and power over it. Job is indeed rebuked by God’s questioning, but it is for his lack of vision, not for any lack of integrity. Although Job had never intended to usurp any divine privilege or status, his anthropological presuppositions were exaggerated. He expected, even demanded, an insight into reality far beyond what can be expected for humans. God’s questioning sought to correct his by pointing out time and again: God is God and Job is not. Job does not repent of sinfulness but of the foolish speech that sprang from his mistaken presuppositions. “Dust and ashes” refer to his humble condition as a mortal human being with limitations. God’s questioning forced him to ponder these limitations. The purpose of this experience was not to silence Job, but to reassure him of divine control over the universe and to inspire him to confidence in this wondrous yet incomprehensible God. Job’s questions may not have been answered as they had been asked, nor were his demands met, but his fears were dissipated, and his trust in God has been restored. He has come to see that, as important as human well-being might be, it is only a part of the vast cosmic reality over which God reigns. At issue is whether or not he can trust, without understanding.
Dianne Bergant, CSA, “Praying With Job,” in Prayer in the Catholic Tradition, ed. Robert J. Wicks, pp. 465-6