I don't quite grasp the concept of prayer. Is God really listening to all of us? Or, is it really something we do for our own sake?
– Purpose of Praying?
One of the most tantalizing instructions in all of scripture appears in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. There, Paul tells us to, “pray without ceasing.” You don’t have to think too hard about Paul’s instruction to realize that, if what he means by prayer is kneeling and whispering holy words, then he is asking us to do something both absurd and impossible. You might be able to keep up that kind of prayer for a few days, kneeling until your shins got calloused and your voice grew hoarse. But, after not very long, you’d be pretty much desperate to have a shower, eat a hot meal, get some sleep, visit with your friends, and go back to school or work. By “prayer,” therefore, Paul must be talking about something that is compatible with day-to-day life. He must be talking about a practice that, in his case, allowed him to build a bunch of tents and to write a lot of letters, and that, in your case and mine, allows us to live into our own vocations.
I wonder if we could paraphrase and expand upon Paul’s invitation to pray without ceasing by saying something like this:
Be open to wonder and beauty and possibility.
Keep on learning – about creation, about your neighbor, about God, about yourself.
Search for the truth.
Take holy risks.
Say you’re sorry.
Be quick to love.
Be ready to act.
If my guess is right — if Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is inviting us to understand practices such as these as the elements from which prayer is built — then prayer is not a discrete activity, divorced from our regular lives. Rather, prayer is a way of responding to and of engaging with our regular lives. To pray without ceasing is to walk through this world in such a manner as to be receptive to the spark of the divine. Now, that’s not to say that time spent on your knees with sacred words on your lips doesn’t matter. It is to say, however, that what we might call formal prayer is but one of the many ways in which God invites us to pray.
Now, POP, let’s return to your questions. Does God listen (and, I would add, does God participate) when we pray? Yes. In prayer, Jesus invites us to be his friends, to be his disciples, to be his hands and his feet in this broken world. In prayer, Jesus sits with us in our loss and in our love.
Do we pray for our own sakes? Yes. Prayer is all about being fully alive. It is all about being oriented towards that big meaning and that big love which the Christian tradition knows as God. Prayer is all about finding what Frederick Buechner calls that “place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”
Pray in and through everything you do, POP. Don’t worry too much about praying incorrectly or ineffectively or irreverently; God gets that all of us are new at this. Pray with your heart, with your gut, with your hands, with your mind. Pray without ceasing.