Prayer: What’s the Use?

Scripture Readings

To this day, I can still remember my mother teaching me what she called, “your prayers”—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. I couldn’t have been much older than two or three. I remember kneeling beside my bed as she taught me. Was she sitting on the bed beside me, or kneeling by my side? I don’t recall. I do remember asking her about the funny words—thy, hallowed, trespasses. From then on, I remember that, before I got into bed, it was time for me to kneel down and to “say my prayers.” She’d ask me, “Did you say your prayers?” It was always “my prayers” and it was something I was supposed to do every day for God.

I don’t remember the first time I realized I could pray for something. Somebody somewhere told me that God answered prayers when we asked him for what we wanted. I’m sure I asked God for something back then, but I have no idea what it might have been. In my kid’s brain, praying for something was no different from making a list for Santa, only God was bigger than Santa, and I didn’t have to wait ‘til Christmas. Did I get what I prayed for? Who knows? All I know is that, over the years, sometimes I got what I prayed for, and sometimes I didn’t. After a while, as a teen, bedtime prayers became just something I was supposed to do when I was little; so, evidently, I didn’t have to do it anymore. Besides, whether I got what I wanted or not seemed to have little to do with whether I prayed for it or not. I still sometimes talked to God in my head, but I stopped saying “my prayers.”

I could go on at length about learning to pray the rosary—I was taught it to keep me from squirming around in the pew at Sunday Mass. Or about how, when I was taught to make my confession, I was told the priest would give me prayers to say for my penance—three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys. At the time, I never got the reason for all the repetition. Why wasn’t just saying a prayer once enough? Wasn’t God getting bored by all the words? I completely understand why older children and young adults so often stop praying entirely. Where’s the sense of it?

In today’s gospel from Saint Luke, Jesus wants to encourage his disciples to “pray always without becoming weary.” He wouldn’t have needed to say this if his disciples hadn’t had the same experience with prayer that I’ve just described. There are many reasons why people give up on prayer. People don’t actually grow weary of praying—we don’t do enough of it to get tired of it. What we do get tired of is that prayer fails to meet our expectations. We get disappointed when we don’t get what we’ve prayed for when we’ve prayed for it. Now, pause for a moment. Aren’t these kinds of prayers just like our childhood letters to Santa? If so, could it be that God doesn’t give us what we asked for because we haven’t been good enough?

Either we’ve been bad, or we’re not praying the right words or praying often enough. Maybe it’s our fault that God’s not responding. Then we need to use more prayers or different prayers. We need to stop doing things that make us feel guilty and unworthy and then go to confession. We need to up our game: say more prayers, go to Mass more often, be more charitable, do more good deeds. If we do that, maybe then God will give us what we want.

It doesn’t take long to realize that doesn’t work, either. We become discouraged because even those things don’t produce our desired results. What’s worse, we become bored with it all. Did you know that there are over one-hundred-and-fifty Hail Marys in the fifteen mysteries of the rosary? How’s that for boring? Not surprisingly, it happens to all of us that saying our prayers loses its importance. It may still be something we know that we’re supposed to do, but there are so many more important things that we have to do. Besides, we quickly learn that the consequences for skipping our prayers are…nothing. There are none—at least none that we’re aware of.

What can we learn from the parable in today’s gospel? Certainly not that God is like the unjust judge who ignores the widow’s suit until she pesters him to distraction. The message is that if persistence can change the mind even of an unjust judge, how much more effect will our persistence in prayer have on our relationship with God? What’s at stake here—for the widow and for us—if not justice? And what do we mean by justice?

Justice refers to what we as humans—and especially as believers and followers of Christ—have a right to expect out of life. Don’t we have a right to live our lives in peace with our God and our neighbors and a right to share that life with them forever? That’s what our faith tells us. Justice isn’t receiving the kingdom and the power and the glory that Satan promised Jesus during his temptation in the desert. Nor is it having the cup of suffering and sorrow taken away from us as Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. The peace and justice that is our right doesn’t come from avoiding the cross; it comes from embracing it and passing through it to the other side. Jesus didn’t offer his disciples that peace which the world cannot give until after his death and resurrection. And so, we pray “grant us the peace and unity of your Kingdom where you live forever and ever, amen.”

So, why should we persevere in prayer? Because the road we must travel is not easy. The material things we encounter along the way are but temporary and unimportant. The things we want and ask for won’t sustain us on our journey. Whether God puts those things into our lives or not makes no difference. Nothing we had or ever will have will transition with us through death. Regardless of what we want, what we need is the grace and strength that comes from God our Father through his Son, Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer—regardless of what it is or how we go about it—puts us in direct contact with all that we need, nothing more and nothing less. That is the justice and peace we pray for, and the justice and peace God grants us not just sometimes, but all the time. It’s all right there in prayer—if we can persevere without becoming weary or bored or discouraged or feeling unworthy or distracted by more important things. Therefore, no longer as needy children, but as struggling adults, let us pray.

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