March 27, 2012

Prayer and Selfishness

More and more lately, I've been realizing that many of the prayers people say actually sound quite selfish. What I mean by "selfish" is that people ask for things they want - not necessarily for themselves in every instance, but things they want nonetheless, even if they want them for others. As the saying goes, "it is better to give than to receive", but most of what I see is asking to receive, not give.

First, some background. This type of prayer, where one asks God (or a saint, or whoever you pray to) for something is known as "petitionary prayer". Petitionary prayer is the most common form of prayer, and the Bible is full of hundreds of examples. So are the teachings and holy books of many other religions. That is because it is the simplest form of prayer, an almost childish version of what we should ultimately attain to reach. That doesn't mean it's wrong - the biblical justification for it was given by Jesus himself: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7). But just because you can and are allowed to ask for something, doesn't always mean you should.

Part of the problem is that Christians are taught to have a personal relationship with God, Jesus, and the saints. But for most people, these words seem hollow. Instead, there's a sense of "here vs. there" or "us and them" for most of people. These ideas of God and divinity are distant to most people, and not personal. Think about it this way, would you go to one of your friends with a list of things you want and hand it to them? One of your neighbors? Your parents? Your teachers? Anyone? Would you do this daily? I'm guessing most of you would not. Yet people have absolute no qualms about doing so to God, someone that should deserve more respect. If you wanted something from your parents, how would you ask? A list of demands? No, instead it would most likely be phrased as questions, asking for what you'd like. Probably peppered with a few "pleases" and "if you don't minds", just to be respectful. But we don't see that level of humility in most prayers. Let's look at a few examples of what I'm talking about.

First, let's take the Lord's Prayer (Pater Noster, also known as "Our Father"). I've numbered each line for easy reference.
  (1) Our Father who art in heaven,
  (2) Hallowed be thy name.
  (3) Thy kingdom come.
  (4) Thy will be done
  (5) On earth as it is in heaven.
  (6) Give us this day our daily bread,
  (7) And forgive us our trespasses,
  (8) As we forgive those who trespass against us,
  (9) And lead us not into temptation,
(10) But deliver us from evil.
(11) Amen
The first line is innocent enough; it is mainly just a salutation. The second line can be taken as simply a statement of fact, but it could also be taken as a request, asking God to make sure his name remains hallowed. The following two lines could also be taken this way. Many theologians, and priests, do interpret these lines as requests. Line 5 is innocuous as well, it is just elaborating on the previous line. Then in lines 6-10, we have a sudden burst of no less than five requests in a row. Then it's done - that's it. As one priest, Father Robert Barron, put it "the paradigmatic prayer that Jesus taught us—the Our Father—is nothing but a series of petitions". And he's right. There are no questions, or humble requests in there. There is no please. There is no offer to give God anything in return, should he grant any or all of these requests. In fact, these almost seem beyond mere requests, they almost sound like commands. This is what I mean by "selfish".

Next up, let's look at the Hail Mary (Ave Maria, also known as the "Angelic Salutation") prayer.
  (1) Hail Mary,
  (2) Full of grace,
  (3) The Lord is with thee;
  (4) Blessed art thou amongst women,
  (5) And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
  (6) Holy Mary, Mother of God,
  (7) Pray for us sinners,
  (8) Now and at the hour of our death.
  (9) Amen
This one doesn't have nearly as many as the Lord's Prayer, but right there in line 7 we see another request (or command). This particular prayer has always bothered me because of this fact. The background behind it is what drives it home for me. Again, one needs to see Mary on a more personal level and not an abstract, mystical level for this to become apparent. Here we're talking about, by most accounts, a 14 or 15 year old girl who became pregnant, and not entirely by her own choice (the extent of which is a matter of debate and not within the scope of this article). She probably suffered quite a bit of ridicule and ostracism for her claims of being a virgin. Then once her child was born, she quickly realized he was "different". Whether different in a good way or bad way, it can be a trying thing for a parent to deal with, especially a parent so young. As her child grew, she then had to see him being shunned and insulted by many people, some who thought he was crazy and others who thought he was blasphemous. Eventually, she had to witness her own son be arrested, tortured, and publicly executed. Taken in totality, this is a terrible, horrible thing for a parent to go through. Most of us, thankfully, can't even fathom the emotional toll something like that takes on someone. It really is irrelevant whether her son was divine or not - at the end of the day, she was a mother and he was her son.

Now let's imagine that you have a friend or neighbor that went through something like that. Would you ever, ever, go up to her and ask her to pray for you? And not just you, but everyone that has done something wrong? And not just once? I venture to say no, most people would not. In fact, most people would pray for that friend, and try to console her. So why doesn't the prayer do that? Why does it not pray for Mary, for her comfort and her peace? Isn't that, as good Christians, what people are supposed to be doing? This is a different kind of selfishness than merely making demands of someone. This is also a lack of empathy, completely ignoring the suffering of another because it is being clouded by one's own desires. Personally, I envision a more appropriate prayer going something more like this:
Hail Mary,
Full of grace,
The Lord is with thee;
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
May the people of the world
Pray for your peace and consolation
And thank you for your sacrifice
Doesn't that seem more in line with a proper "Christian attitude"? This type of "empathy lacking selfishness" also shows up in hundreds of impromptu prayers, usually to Jesus. For example, think about the idea of praying to Jesus to keep people safe during a sporting event. Again, if one thinks about the object of one's prayer on a personal level, this begins to sound selfish. Here's a man who sacrificed his life, in a very painful way and at a young age, to save all of humanity. He gave the ultimate sacrifice - his life. It seems just a little audacious to ask for anything more beyond that. Almost as if that wasn't enough, it seems wrong to follow up his sacrifice with "thanks for that, but could you do one more thing?" and then to ask for something trivial.

Natural questions that arise from this are "Why do people do this?" and "Is it bad to do this?". I'm going to address both of those next.

First off, why do people do this? The short answer is because they're taught to. This simple form of prayer is what children are taught. The problem is, as people mature it is rare that their spirituality matures with them. Most people cannot, or do not want to, move beyond this level. The next level, which is simply a transition, is the type of non-selfish prayer I mentioned above. The level beyond that is a form of prayer known as contemplative prayer. Many saints have written about contemplative prayer, such as John of the Cross, Thomas Aquinas, and Ignatius of Loyola. Contemplative prayer is prayer without words. It is similar to meditation, but not quite the same things. The exact details of what it involves is a subject for a later post, but suffice it to say that most people never achieve this level of personal prayer. In fact, most people aren't even aware it exists.

Next, is it bad to do this? No, not really. Think of God as a parent. A parent constantly hears many requests, demands, and even commands from their children. This doesn't mean those kids are bad. It is a natural part of being a child, and it is a poor parent that chastises their child for this. This doesn't mean, however, that the child's wishes will or should be granted. God is the same way, he reacts the way a good parent would. However, there comes a time to stop being a child and become an adult, and this is the step where many people become stuck. Why? Because it is hard to grow up. It takes work and it takes personal responsibility. It takes a reckoning with one's own fears. So no, it isn't wrong or bad. But that doesn't mean it's what's best for them, either.

So when approaching your routine of prayer, keep in mind what Mike Aquilina and Regis J. Flaherty wrote: "Finish by thanking God for the opportunity to spend time with Him and tell Him you desire to follow Him faithfully." In other words, be humble and be respectful.


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