“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, blessed are you. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you, for I am taking my life in my hand. . . . Now help me, who am alone and have no one but you, O Lord.”Esther 4: 3,14
“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and to everyone who knocks it shall be opened.”Matthew 7: 7-8
Adrian van Kaam says that every human person we encounter is an appeal to us. He describes that appeal as, “Please be with me and for me.” Van Kaam is saying that whatever we “think” we are asking for, we are always, at a deeper level, making this appeal for the presence of the other with us.
Despite our best efforts, our capacity to be with and for another is limited and frail. None of us can be with and for another to the degree that the other most deeply desires, and this is true even when we are practicing good will, when we are actually trying to be with and for. Of course, for the most part the world as a whole does not exist to be with and for us, and so we shall all eventually find ourselves in the place where Esther does in today’s first reading. That is, existentially and at our core we experience being alone and without help. Probably most of us can identify with Esther’s plea: “Now help me, whom am alone and have no one but you, O Lord.” Esther’s tradition tells her that her Lord is a personal one, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So she, as their daughter, has the support of that tradition to trust that God will also be with and for her.
Now Esther is asking God in particular to give her the words she needs to persuade the King to defend the Jews and to destroy their enemies. And she receives that for which she asks. It is clear that she is moved to pray out of her experience of being alone and so needing the presence of the Lord with her. She is able to do what she must because of that Divine presence.
The familiar words of Jesus, as he exhorts us to pray, are no less difficult for all their familiarity. At least for me, I do not, at the level of my surface requests, always receive that for which I ask. Although more than seldom I do also experience the truth of the aphorism: “Be careful what you wish for.” In truth, we all realize that in our intercessory prayer we ask for lots of things for others and ourselves, and the record is mixed at best in terms of the specific things we ask for being given to us. But, it is here that the insight of van Kaam teaches us an important lesson about prayer. As the person who comes to us asking for some specific kind of help is actually appealing to us to be with and for them, when we pray for something from God we are actually praying for God to “be with us and for us.” Esther has the words she needs for the King because she goes to him in the presence of the Lord.
It is to our actual appeal that God always responds. That is what Jesus teaches today. He says if we truly seek, that is with the humility and the need of God out of which we know with every fiber of our being our need for God, then we shall find God. If we stand as a lost traveler who is cold, alone, and frightened at the door of God’s dwelling, God will always open the door to us. Jesus tells us in this teaching that God desires for us to find God, and God is waiting for us to knock at the door.
So true prayer is not primarily the words we speak or the gestures we employ, it is first of all a disposition of life. It is a stance, born of the futility of our attempts to make our own way and create our own lives, of openness, vulnerability, and willingness before God. It is a turning from every other person, place, or thing in which we have put our trust and, from that place where no one but God can be with and for us, praying: “Now help me, who am alone and have no one but you, O Lord.”
Søren Kierkegaard says that in the case of the Divine Physician, “the helper is the help.” As most days in life, yesterday was, at the level of my ego, a very mixed day for me. It had moments of wonderful encounter, on the one hand, and it had moments of the continuing reminder of how much of the time I and we are ignoring the possibilities of life and grace in and with others. Yet, in a quiet and reflective moment, a moment in which I knew for certain the reality of God’s loving presence as the home in which I truly dwell, I experienced a wonderful sense of joy and peace. I pictured myself entering into the difficult places, situations, and personal relations in life in that state of gratitude and joy, and I realized that so much of the hurt and grief in others to which I often contribute is because I live and move as if this love and joy were not my home.
When we live the life in God that is ours, there is nothing other that we need. All of our acquisitiveness, envy, competition, jealousy, lust, wrath, and laziness arise out of our forgetfulness of the helper who is always with and for us. Whenever our exertion strivings are evoking anxiety in us, we have forgotten that all does not depend upon us and that God never asks us to do that of which we are incapable.
In the tradition we call this remembrance of the truth of things, of the reality of God’s presence, recollection. In recollection we re-collect ourselves from all the places into which we have been scattered. We come home to ourselves, which is to knock on the door at the place where God dwells. We get into trouble when we are dissipated and scattered. As we run about looking for gratification here and power there and respect elsewhere, we increasingly become lost, becoming more and more distanced from the place where we live. In recollection and in prayer we gather those dispersed aspects of ourselves and we bring ourselves back by seeking and knocking. The seeking and knocking of which Jesus speaks is really more non-action than action. When we are living from our hearts and because it is our heart’s very nature to seek and to knock, we do not need to force ourselves to pray. Prayer is, in fact, our most distinctively human action. We are not always at prayer because we are so often lost, distanced and dissociated from our actual lives and the longing of our hearts.
We do understand that we are always seeking something. So much of what we seek, however, is superficial and self-serving, that we, as Esther, most often need to be brought to that place where we feel alone and have no one else but God. And at first we may experience the truth of this place as desperation. Because we live so seldom in the truth of who we are, it can feel very alienating and fearful to find ourselves there. But this is the darkness that we need if we are to open to the true light. Because all else we trusted has failed us, we fear that God will too. But today Jesus teaches us that all we need to do is dare to ask, to seek, and to knock, because, as Simone Weil says, “God waits as a beggar for our love.”
He who invites all and wants to help all treats the patient just as if he intended it for each one individually, as if each patient he had was his only patient. Ordinarily a physician must divide his help among his many patients. A physician, of course, cannot sit all day with one patient, even less have all his patients at home with him. How could he be all day with one patient without neglecting the others? The patient has the medicine the physician prescribes and uses it whenever he needs to. The physician checks on him occasionally, or the patient may visit the physician. But when the helper is the help, he remains with the patient all day long. How amazing, then, that this helper is the very one who invites all to remain with him!Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity