What is Prayer?

Illustration Art by Emma Florence Harrison

Illustration Art by Emma Florence Harrison

 

Prayer is the breath and manifestation of the Spirit of love, and it finds its perfect expression in the Blessed Trinity. All genuine prayer has its source in the life of the Triune God.

If prayer is the breathing of the soul, and love its pulsation, we may conclude that love is the source of prayer. Furthermore, genuine love refers to the selfless love that seeks the happiness of others and is not distorted by selfish passion or attachment. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor 13:4-8).

Such love, true and eternal, cannot have merely human origin. “Love is from God.” says John the Apostle (1 Jn 4:7). In the New Testament the word used for this love is agape (which differentiates it from eros). St. Paul does not use agape to designate human love for God; he uses the phrase “to love God” only twice (Rm 8:28; 1 Cor 8:3). The Christian love we call agape is essentially God’s love for us manifested in Christ. Subsequently, this divine love that is transformed into love of neighbor is also agape. It is God’s love translated into action that permeates the entire Gospel, from first line to last.

If we are capable of loving, it is because “God first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). When we say, “I want to pray,”  it is God who prays in us. It seems easier for us to say, “God loves” than “God prays.” Yet, as St. Paul says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26).

 The word prayer generally evokes the image of petitions made to God, as in the second part of the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer. Yet hasn’t God made it clear that before we pray for our “daily bread” we should first ask, “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come”? Is not the petition “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” God’s will for the establishment of his kingdom on earth, as well as an indication that the kernel of all prayer should be, before all else, a petition for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness (Mt 6:33)?

Viewed in this light, the heart of prayer lies not in God’s response to our petitions but in making God’s will our prayer. In other words, God’s prayer should become the soul of our prayer. Because of our deafness and blindness, God’s voice is often inaudible, so we lose sight of him and become like wandering sheep. We need, then, to pray for knowledge of God’s will and for strength enlivened by God’s prayer. Such is genuine prayer.

Figuratively speaking, prayer may be compared to water. God’s prayer is the rain that comes from heaven. The land watered by this rain represents humanity. The water absorbed by the land forms an underground current that eventually surfaces as a spring. Our prayer is the spring whose very existence depends on the rain, but if there is to be a spring, there must also be a heart, that like the earth is capable of receiving and retaining the water from heaven, a heart that has emptied itself sufficiently to allow the underground current to flow freely into its empty space. In a heart that is hardened, attached to its own judgement, the spring of prayer will never be allowed to emerge. The basis of true prayer is to make God’s will really ours before seeking to fulfill our own desires.

The seed of prayer is sown in heaven.
It pushes its stem toward the earth 
and comes to grow there.
It produces an abundance of fruit.
Then, as it becomes seed once more,
it thrusts its way back to heaven.
~ Jukichi Yagi

~ An excerpt from the book ‘Awakening to Prayer’, by Augustine Ichiro Okumura, O.C.D.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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