The wholeness of prayer


29 May 2022

Prayer makes our lives complete. It adds colour and is its own reward.

Anyone who prays knows that prayer is messy. Yet we dream of simplicity – perhaps of prayer in which we fix on God like a laser and stay there, or of a desire to pray that never leaves us, or of an uninterrupted sense of union with God. Our dreams can shape our understanding of what real prayer is. Then we are tempted to think that our boredom, failed experiments with different ways of praying and constant distractions are not real prayer.

Not ‘or’ but ‘and’

In reality the language of prayer is not ‘this but not that’, but ‘both this and that’. For example, prayer is both a divine and a human activity. It is about our relationship with God. God hears our prayer. St Paul goes further and says that when we pray the Holy Spirit prays within us. At God’s end the cable of prayer is never switched off and God supplies the power. God also speaks to us in prayer.

In prayer, however, we have only a human handset. God speaks to us through the things of our world – through our minds and hearts, and also through nature, other people and silence. As do all human activities our praying shares our messiness, our inconstancy, our desire to look good, our hopes and our generous impulses, our despondency and sense of failure, our loves and our prejudices, our flibbertigibbety distractedness. As we become more simple our prayer might also become more simple. But it remains human and embraces our cracks.

Prayer is also both a gift, and only then a duty. If prayer is God’s gift to us, it is something to enjoy and to be thankful for. As with hiking or cycling in the country, it can be wearying and even boring, but we continue to make space for it because it is one of the good things in our life. We should not have to grit our teeth before praying.         

Prayer is a duty and a commandment only in the sense that eating, drinking, playing, making space for conversation and smiling are duties. If we shut them out of our lives our lives are incomplete and colourless. Like them prayer is not an extra activity that God has commanded us to do. Nor is it a transaction, something we do in order to receive a pay out. It is not as if we can go to God’s bank to exchange one hour’s prayer for credit to avoid disaster this life and to get 10 years taken off purgatory. Like our relationship with God, prayer is free and is its own reward.

Occasional gift

Prayer is also both part of our daily bread and sometimes a gourmet meal. Such meals, that only chefs in five-star restaurants can cook, are the everyday experience of the rich. For most of us they are only an occasional treat. The mystical prayer described by many saints and the ecstatic experiences we may have are also only an occasional gift.

Ordinarily prayer is more like a meal of left-overs prepared in the microwave. It gathers together before God our daily life, with all its despairs, distractions, loves, temptations, attractions and contrariness. These things are not obstacles to prayer but the stuff of it. They are the things that we make a meal of in our lives. In prayer we offer them as a meal to God as our guest. Like any simple meal, too, prayer also allows little spaces for silence, for remembering and for conversation.

Prayer, too, is both child’s play and an adult business. Jesus ticked off the disciples for preventing children from chattering with him. His followers wanted him to engage with people about the serious business of how to live and where God was leading them. Jesus saw that the children were modelling the answer to those questions in their openness to him.

Simple trust

For many of us, too, our first dim memories of prayer are of a simple trust in God when we were small children. We might also remember how we lost that simplicity later as we developed more complex relationships, and perhaps how we lost the desire to pray, then returned to explore a variety of methods, and still later settled into a comfortable and tatty way of praying full of moth holes but somehow keeping us warm.

Both as children and as adults we go out of ourselves in prayer and enter more deeply into ourselves. Prayer takes us out into the darkest places of our own lives and our world, to the beauty and fragility of our natural world, to people suffering in war and famine, to the people who are the source of our grief and angers. In doing so it also takes us more deeply into our griefs, angers, betrayals and disappointments, and also into the mystery of the silence of a God before the suffering and injustice of our world. We can see this in the Lord’s prayer, which makes us focus on our place in the world.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of Madonna magazine. Madonna magazine is the source of the daily prayer reflections. Click HERE to subscribe to Madonna magazine.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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