The subject of prayer came up at the breakfast table this morning. I am in the habit of joining my groom and his cohort from the Dead Theologians Society, an ecumenical but largely Protestant, group that studies writings of various spiritual authors. The motto is: Gotta be Dead to be Read. The menu runs heavily to Puritan writers but the odd Catholic sneaks in now and again.
Over eggs and oatmeal, one of the participants ruminated on the fact that the prayers of those folks in Pensacola that they be spared the storm were answered, but those of the folks in New Orleans, who prayed the same prayer were not. The discussion drifted into the inscrutable ways of God who answered one prayer of petition and not the other.
I completely understand the conundrum. As a result, I have pretty well ceased asking for anything very specific in prayer, and I mentioned that in passing. That intrigued the group. Prayers tend to be quite specific and detailed in that circle. They inquired what I did pray for.
With apologies to the monks I plagiarized this from I told them: As You know and as You will, Lord have mercy. The older I get, it seems the fewer words I pray and the longer I spend doing it. The monks’ prayer and the Jesus prayer pretty much cover it all when interceding as the result of some specific event: pestilence, famine, plague, conquest—the usual.
I learned some essential truths of prayer when it comes to specific events in my former, Jewish life. When I was studying Jewish prayer traditions, the rabbi who taught the class was careful to remind us that prayer is not just an individual activity. Like all of Jewish—and Christian—life it takes place in the context of community. And the pious Jew, like the faithful Christian, is obliged to take that into account and to pray individually but not really separately. I’ll never forget the class. It has shaped by prayer (and my shopping) to this day.
To drive home the effects of community, he gave the example of a shopkeeper and a customer. Suppose, he said, the customer comes in and asks the price of something in the shopkeeper’s case, with no intention of purchasing. The shopkeeper gets it out, displays it and the customer just walks away. Is it right, he mused, to raise the shopkeeper’s hopes in such a circumstance? A small disappointment, he acknowledged, but a real one and one we can avoid. Do you think we have the obligation to do so?
About that time, a siren sounded and interrupted the class. Are you tempted to pray that the ambulance is not going for someone you love? he asked us. If so, what you are really praying is that it is going for someone else because whatever has happened has happened. You are asking injury to be visited on another. Better by far to ask G-d’s blessing on whoever it is. And to praise G-d, regardless.
Two little incidents from a conversion class more than thirty years ago and they taught me so very much about how I as a Catholic try to approach prayer. Individually but not separately. In community. Thinking not just of what I want but of what serves the greater good. And because I rarely have much of a grasp on any of that, my prayer becomes simple and direct. As You know and as You will....
I remember a similar prayer, from another Jewish rabbi: Let this cup pass, but still, not my will but Yours…
These days, when I hear a siren, I say an Ave. When I hear a train whistle, I pray for the poor and holy souls in purgatory. When I am asked to pray for someone, like an exemplary Jewish woman I know, I simply say what it is that is happening (they have no wine) and leave the rest to Jesus. For all the rest: As You know and as You will. Lord, have Mercy.
It’s enough. Praise G-d!