Prayer and Desire

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Yes, as the rain and the snow come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating, so the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.

Is. 55: 10-11

When you pray, do not babble on like the Gentiles, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them. For your Father knows what need you have before you ask him. So you pray in this way: “Our Father who is in heaven, may your name be made holy. May your kingdom come. May your will be done—as it is in heaven, so also on earth.”

Mt. 6: 7-10

This Tuesday of the first week of Lent offers us a scriptural teaching on prayer. The poetry of Isaiah affords us meditative access to the creative and transformative nature and power of the Divine word. The Word that comes from God is potent and effective. It is a Word that creates life and that reforms and transforms wherever it enters. It comes from God and returns to God, taking back with it all that it has penetrated.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matthew begins by his distinguishing between two kinds of words. The Word that Isaiah speaks of, that comes from and returns to God, and the “babble” that so often constitutes our own speech. Taken together, we recognize this dialectical relationship between God’s word and our typical “babble.” As Jesus tells us to pray that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven, we realize that the presence and activity of God’s Word in us, a Word that expresses the Kingdom within and among us, are often inaccessible due to the “babble” that fills our minds and hearts.

The other day I was speaking with a woman religious who for many decades has dedicated herself to a life of prayer. As she spoke of her recent experiences to attend to the Word in the midst of the babble of thoughts and concerns, she simply stated: “It is so hard.” Isn’t it strange that the true bedrock of creation and reality that is God’s creative Word is so difficult for us to hear and to participate in? Perhaps this is an aspect of our sinfulness by which that which was freely given now must be earned by “the sweat of our brow.”

Given the amount of our inner “babbling,” how can we learn to pray, if prayer is disposing ourselves to the presence and action of the Divine Word in us? How are we formed into instruments of God’s will on earth as in heaven? St. Teresa of Avila says that one thing we ought to do is to be very specific in what we ask of God. Even though we may intuit that what we really want may be different from God’s will, we should with all our hearts ask for what we most deeply desire.

It is not easy to recognize, let alone express, our deepest desires. Perhaps one of the most difficult questions for us to answer is “What do I really need or want?” It can be humbling to recognize our own deep desires, and even more humbling to express them. As a result our prayer is quite often vague and general – and in this way we are able to live a somewhat dissociated life of prayer in which God’s will and our desires never meet. We “will” God’s will in a way that is very separate from those needs, wants, and desires that preoccupy our daily lives.

To pray wholeheartedly, however, for what we really need and want exposes us to the possibility of change and transformation. It opens us, at our deepest level, to a creative dialogue with God’s Word. For us, desire is transformed through the experience of disappointment. When we acknowledge what we really desire and seek it in prayer, we will certainly, at times if not frequently, be disappointed. That disappointment, however, is not the end but the beginning of the encounter with God. It is the opening to a deeper level of desire, of want, of need in us. We “think” that what we ask for is what we need, but we begin to discover that what we really need is quite something else, something far more than we could ever have imagined. But we will never discover our deepest life and love unless we offer in prayer our real and immediate experience, our actual life of desire.

Through such practice of submitting our desires to God in prayer, we may come in time to realize the reality of a Word that undergirds and transcends the words that flood our thoughts and emotions. We may begin to experience in true faith, hope, and love a Divine will and word that can be trusted, even as we struggle with our conflicting and conflictual desires, wants, needs, and fears. One of the most striking exemplifications of such faith in the midst of human pain and conflict is the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer said at the time of the painful loss of a beloved one.

Magnified and sanctified may his great name be
In the world that he created as he wills.
And may his kingdom come in your lives and in your days
And in the lives of all the house of Israel, swiftly and soon,
And say all Amen!

Amen!
May his great name be blessed
Always and forever!

Blessed and praised and glorified and raised
And exalted and honored and uplifted and lauded
Be the name of the Holy One (He is Blessed!)
Above all blessings and hymns and praises and consolations
That are uttered in the world,
And say all Amen!

May a great peace from heaven—and life!—
Be upon us and upon all Israel,
And say all Amen!

May He who makes peace in his high places
Make peace upon us and upon all Israel,
And say all Amen!

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