What is prayer for?
Is it really necessary for life? And if I don’t pray, is something bad going to happen or won’t anything change?
Before answering, it is necessary to clarify the meaning of the question. The “what for” can mean several things, and it is not the same thing to say what sense it has, or to ask about its immediate usefulness. If the only thing sought were the latter, we would be consciously or unconsciously faced with an attempt to use God for our purposes, and it should not be surprising that God does not play such a game. God is not the genie of the lamp.
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If we read the Gospel, we shall find a multitude of exhortations to prayer. A good example is the first half of Luke chapter 11, but many more texts could be mentioned. It is interesting to note that Jesus Christ does not insist so much on the obligation of prayer as on its necessity.
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A first approach to the answer – which is necessarily schematic, since the subject gives a whole treatment – requested can be made by taking into account the four “types” of prayer. Thus we find that prayer serves four purposes:
– Adoration. Recognizing God and his sovereignty is something that has always been recognized by all religions.
– Appreciation. It is closely linked to the previous one. In justice we cannot give back to him what he has given us – which is everything, starting with life itself – but we can and must thank him, especially when through faith and hope we know that he is preparing for us a glorious eternal life.
– Contrition. The prodigal son in the parable came home saying that he had sinned “against heaven and against you”. “Heaven” was one of the many terms by which the Jews referred to God. It is put in the first place because sin is always an offense to God. Repentance for sin – from which, in one way or another, more or less serious, we are not free – contrition, when sincere, is addressed to God, and is then translated into a prayer of contrition.
– Petition. It is the one most frequently mentioned in the Gospel, and at the same time the most problematic to explain, since it is evident that we do not always get what we ask for. Here we must take into account that God’s order of values often does not coincide with our own. We often want -and ask for- a quiet and prosperous life; God wants our salvation in the first place. And it is in what concerns salvation most directly that we can see most clearly the efficacy of prayer… and the consequences of its neglect. An excellent example is the words of Christ in the Garden of Olives: pray that you may not fall into temptation. The story of Peter’s denials would have been more than likely different if he had fulfilled the Lord’s request instead of falling asleep. However, another requirement of good prayer is that it be persevering, and that is why God wants to see our perseverance in prayer before we fulfill the request. And until then he does nothing? Well, he does: he gives the necessary help for that perseverance, which is not little.
However, not everything is said. The Gospel brings us the model of prayer: the Lord’s Prayer, pronounced by Christ himself when he is asked to teach you how to pray. The first two words make all the difference. In Jesus Christ God makes us his children, so that from that moment on the prayer he asks and teaches is not the one that is addressed to God as Creator, as omnipotent and as judge (although all this is included), but the one that is addressed to God as Father. In the Garden of Olives we are shown something of the Lord’s prayer. It is addressed to God the Father as Abba, Father. That Abba is the equivalent of our father, and it is not easy for a Christian to understand to what extent that treatment sounded scandalous in Jewish ears, especially Pharisees.
Thus, prayer has become a filial conversation of one who has been adopted into the very divine family. As happens in this world, where entering into conversation is the prelude and consequence of friendship, prayer is called to be a dialogue with God, where the principal virtue is forged: charity, true friendship with God, who thus becomes the beloved above all things. A dialogue where one’s own and the other’s, the “things” of God and our life, are interwoven. At first sight, this might seem impossible. It would be without divine help, but God’s grace is not lacking to make it possible. The lives of the saints are permeated by this intimacy with God, even though there have been periods of darkness and trials.
Moreover, just as God’s love involves love of neighbor-he is, or is called to be, a child of God-so does prayer extend to asking for others, living or dead.
With what has been said, we can briefly answer the other two questions concerning prayer. Is it really necessary for life? Well, it depends on which life we are talking about. As for life in this world, it will depend on what life we want to have. If we are looking for a worthy and virtuous life, we must conclude that it is necessary, because man, by his own strength, does not achieve it. If it is another kind of life… then perhaps not. And this answers the remaining question: does anything happen if I don’t pray? It has already been said what one gets, and therefore what one lacks if one doesn’t pray.
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