Messing about


17 Jan 2024

The Scriptures are full of people who understand that lives are complicated.

I imagine there are people who give themselves 10 marks out of 10 for how they pray. But I have never met one. Most of us are resigned, grateful, or determined to do better, but we are never satisfied that we have got it right. We may be ready to listen to someone who offers a recipe for praying well, such as praying with Scripture. Even if we find their suggestions helpful, however, we continue to be dissatisfied with our prayer.

Though praying with Scripture is not a magic recipe, is still worth giving it a go. When we pray we bring our lives as they are to God. And our lives are messy. They yap like little dogs, dig up the lawn and tear at our socks when we try to slow them down into prayer. The point of our prayer, in fact, is that it is messy.

That is where the Scriptures come in. The Scriptures, too, are messy. They are full of stories that go off in all directions – of a God in different moods, of Jesus who turns our expectations of life upside down, of human beings who are sometimes brave and sometimes cowardly, sometimes generous and sometimes mean, sometimes open to God and sometimes closed, sometimes exemplary and sometimes monstrous.

Wherever we are, whatever our relationship to God is like, we can find in Scripture people such as ourselves and words that echo our own desires and our own moods of doubt, rage, gratitude, coldness and affection.

If we are looking for a well organised, predictable way of praying in which there is no static on the line, no boredom, no surprise, no bad temper, the Scriptures are not a good place to go. But the Scriptures can give us all-purpose lines to repeat during prayer that fit our different moods. Phrases such as ‘Jesus’, ‘Lord have mercy’ or ‘Lord, where else could I go’ provide prayers for all seasons.

Stories from Scripture can also help us to focus our prayer. With the exception of Jesus and Mary these stories rarely feature people who have got it all together. The folk whom Jesus meets in the Gospels are more often women and men whose lives have fallen apart or who haven’t understood what Jesus is telling them. Jesus’ calling attracts him to reach out to and cure the dumb, the blind, the lame and the fevered. He drives devils out of people who are possessed, responds warmly to those who are anxious, discriminated against, unnoticed and begging on the streets. In his choice of company and in his attitudes, deeds and words, whether welcoming public sinners, confronting the religious establishment or correcting his followers’ narrowness, he makes real to us the closeness of a God who loves beyond our belief.

Whether we are feeling miserable, doubtful, hard hearted, unbelieving, lazy, guilt-ridden or needy, the Scriptures will provide us with a hundred stories in which we can read ourselves, and we can talk with Jesus. If we want to follow him more closely, many stories describe him calling people and their response to him. We rarely find, however, stories of people who get things right straightaway or, if they do, who keep on doing so. Even the rich young man whom Jesus loves baulks at the last hurdle, and Peter who recognised Jesus as the son of God ran away when Jesus most needed support. Gospel stories describe a thousand ways to fail. But they also describe a million ways of being loved, accepted, forgiven and invited again to follow Jesus.

In addition to stories the Scriptures also offer words that express vividly what we would like to say when we pray. The Psalms especially are full of words and images that express our own frustration, our desire, our love, our longing, our anger, our experience of failure and abandonment, and our gratitude. They give voice to the messiness of our lives and to our attempts to bring it into our prayer. The Song of Songs, too, gives us images in which we can speak intimately to God of our desire to love and of our gratitude for finding ourselves being loved.

Through the Scriptures, too, our personal prayers are linked to our sisters and brothers through time and in space. What we do alone and can find lonely becomes part of a great chorus of people who share our perplexities and our trust that the Holy Spirit will carry all our prayers to God in a mighty caravan of prayer and of the odd people who pray.  

This article first appeared in the Summer 2023-24 edition of Madonna magazine.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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