Every question of “how to pray” or “teach me to meditate”—and how often do I find these requests on class evaluations—goes back ultimately to two things, the existence of God and the revelation or disclosure of God. They are not the same thing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its teachings with the assertion that God does exist—which an atheist, for one, would dispute—but the Catechism also confirms what the Judaeo-Christian tradition has held from antiquity, that God is self-sufficient and needs no props, such as creation and an adoring public.
The self-sufficiency of God is also a statement that creation—the cosmos, us—is not necessary. There has always been a sizeable school of Catholic theology that has argued otherwise, that God needed to create so that the perfect love of his Son could be manifest in the redemptive act of the cross—but the doctrine of the Trinity, God’s inner community of love—affirms the perfect completeness of God, period. If you pause here and think about this paragraph and play it out in your head with two millennia of theologians, you will understand why foundational texts run to 800 pages or more.
The Catechism goes on to say in its very first paragraph that God’s creation of man was, and is, free. It underscores the mystery of a self-sufficient being involving Himself historically with creatures that are utterly dependent upon him. For those of us who attempt to absorb this, the process is psychological as much as theological, coming to grips with the harshest truth of all: we didn’t have to be, and we are beholden to a power greater than ourselves. This is almost verbatim the second step of the AA program, and it has always seemed to me that AA is way ahead of churches in conveying this foundational truth.
In my view prayer begins with both the intellectual and the affective acceptance of total dependence upon God. Prayer is at its roots a religious/psychological acceptance of understanding one’s true nature. Marriage is a good if incomplete analogy: as a married man most everything I do is impacted by the reality of my marriage, from spending money to allocation of time to maintenance of my morale to the good order of our common home. As often as not, my failures are those of omission as much as commission: overlooking chores, thoughtless flip comments, gratitude only randomly expressed (and missing recycling day, an all-too-common-omission).
The act of accepting a perfect God who is relational is a reordering of a human’s very conscious life itself, and the quality of that reordering is proportional to the number of times we remind ourselves. The act of praying begins to make more sense in this context. We are verbalizing or conceptualizing what we know to be true. In A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1994) John Meier contends that one of Jesus’ sayings with the high confidence of historical basis is precisely the core of what we know as the “Our Father.” This formulary is a direct response to the disciples’ request that Jesus teach them to pray. One of the interesting points of the Our Father is its petition that “thy kingdom come.” In its earliest context this saying is probably a reference to the Second Coming and continues that meaning to the present day, though this is little discussed pastorally. But God’s kingdom is going to come—his ultimate purposes revealed—whether we pray for it to happen or not, in a manner that is out of our control. Thus, this is a phrase of acceptance, not petition; it is our acknowledgement of the “right ordering” of God whether we comprehend it or not.
Prayer from powerlessness is the basic religious stance. One of the most powerful examples of prayer is described in Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews. He describes the spirituality of Jews in the Nazi death camps. In my review I wrote: “They died, he reports, in the confidence that their grim fates were in some mysterious way God's plan for his chosen ones to become that "light to the nations" proclaimed in Isaiah 60.”
Catechetically speaking, how does one teach this kind of prayer?