At nearly every Christian monastery and convent is a bulletin board on which monks and nuns post prayer requests. Those requests come to the religious community every day, often through friends or relatives of the religious or in the mail from complete strangers. The latter are often anonymous, and the envelopes are addressed simply to the monastery in general.
Some monastic bulletin boards might be arranged in parallel columns according to what spiritual writers classify as the four kinds of prayer: adoration, petition, praise, thanksgiving. All four types of prayer occur during liturgies, but they can occur also during private prayer.
Adoration occurs best in silence, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, and praise occurs often incognito, whenever in the Psalms or elsewhere one finds the Latin word Alleluia, or its Hebrew original, Hallelujah. Both words mean “praise the Lord,” and prayers of praise can become verbal, if not verbose. In contrast, adoration, like losing oneself while gazing into the eyes of one’s beloved, tends to be inarticulate.
Prayers of petition can be subdivided into prayers of contrition, asking to be forgiven, and prayers of intercession, often directed to a particular saint. Best known, of course, is the Lord’s Prayer, containing petitions for our forgiveness, and for a spirit of forgiveness, and for our daily needs.
With petitions and intercessions, a danger arises when someone confuses prayer with magic. At one time or another, we have all slipped into that dangerous confusion. Sometimes one hears a kind of spiritual prescription, what sounds like a pious statement, but is really the opposite: Say this prayer three times to, for example, Saint Paphnutius, because he never fails to give you what you want. Say the magic word, get a special prize.
This form of piety reduces not only the saints but also prayers of petition and intercession to the level of a child asking Santa Claus for a new toy. On the surface, such prayers seem like folk piety, admirable in itself, provided it conveys the truth. However well-intended, when such piety veers into the land of lucky charms, it leads away from the truth.
As a result, this approach to prayer leads to disillusionment. Despite thrice-daily repetition of the same never-fail prayer to Saint Paphnutius, nothing has happened. It then becomes easy to conclude that prayer doesn’t work. It is the same disappointment and frustration resulting from a certain kind of failed commercial transaction: When you keep putting in coins, and nothing comes out of the vending machine, eventually you decide to give up.
Either you then reconcile yourself to not having the goody from the vending machine, or you turn to a different vending machine that seems to work. Likewise, a Christian can become fatalistic, resigned to life being broken, or can look far and wide for just the right spiritual fix. Alternatively, the disillusioned Christian decides that vending machines, like slot machines, are for gullible, and probably obsessive, fools who don’t realize that they are wasting their time and money. Disillusionment leads to deciding that there is no Saint Paphnutius, no Santa Claus, and having outgrown such childish beliefs, the newly enlightened Christian finally decides that there is no God.
After many years in a monastic community, one pattern emerges from all these prayer requests: All are prayers of petition. They include prayers for a healthy pregnancy, for a successful operation, for healing a damaged relationship, for finding a job, for the repose of someone’s soul. All are worthy concerns, and the monks are ready to pray for them.
However, never has there been a request for the monks to offer up prayers of thanksgiving. No one has ever asked for prayers to be offered in thanks for a healthy baby, for a successful operation, for a healed relationship, for a new job, for the good example of the faithful departed. Now and then the monks receive a note of thanks for having offered prayers of petition, but thanking the people doing the praying is not the same as asking them to give thanks in prayer.
As the Church prepares for Lent, here is an austere, some might say severe, penance to consider: Outside the Our Father, where we have been instructed to ask also for what we need right now, give up asking in prayer for anything except that God’s will be done. Even in the Lord’s Prayer, petitioning for God’s will to be done runs parallel to asking for God’s reign to govern events here on Earth, just as it does in Heaven. Asking for God to be in control of everything in His creation is far removed from His creatures asking Him to give them the things and situations that they, that we, want.
After all, as has been often said, prayer does not change God, it changes us. Praying for our daily bread does not provide God with new information; it makes us focus on what is important for us in this present moment. Praying for God’s will to be done does not supply Him with a new idea for how to regard all things, visible and invisible. If it happens that the atheists are right when they claim “Prayer is just talking to yourself,” what would be the harm in having spent a life daily desiring that the cosmos not be ordered around one’s own will?
So, for Lent, give up an approach to prayer that treats it like a machine that responds to the right code; give up a spirituality that confuses prayer with rubbing a magic lamp and asking a genie to grant three wishes. Instead, after forty days of wandering in the Lenten desert and saying Thy will be done, forget about making up for lost time by unfurling a pent up list of petitions rooted in one’s own will being done. Rather, go into the dawning joy of Easter quietly praying “Thank you.”