August 2007

Persistence in Prayer ©

Most discussions about prayer eventually come around to the subject of efficacy. In other words, what exactly does prayer accomplish, and why?

We cannot imagine spirituality without prayer. We assume, quite logically, that spirituality rests on a self-transcendent relationship with another, typically a relationship between humanity and divinity—the ultimate Other. Mostly, we pray because we need to pray. Prayer rises naturally from that place deep inside us that knows our existence is only meaningful in relationship with something greater than our finite ego.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ followers ask him to teach them how to pray. They have seen him immersed in prayer. They had also very likely remarked on the benefits apparent in his appearance and behaviour.

Jesus responds with the words that we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer” (v.1-4). The form is worth noting. It begins with praise and ends with petition. It begins with dedication to the unimaginable grandeur of God and ends with the requests that acknowledge the concrete reality of his love.

After teaching these words, Jesus speaks indirectly about the need for persistence in prayer (v.5-8). Finally, this section ends with comments on the effectiveness of prayer (v.9-13).

Jesus tells the story of a man disturbing a friend during the night to ask for loaves of bread needed to feed his guests. His request is rebuffed summarily. But he persists. One might expect the friend to become annoyed and to become even more entrenched in his refusal to help his friend, but he does not. In fact, he relents.

Jesus, in an obvious reference to God responding to prayer, declares, “I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of
their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.” (v.8). In other words, friendship is not the necessary condition for receiving a favour.

Clearly this does not mean that God is indifferent to friendship. Jesus takes his relationship with his apostles to a whole new level when he calls them friends: “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (Jn15:15) But he does respond in this case on the basis of persistence rather than friendship.

It would appear that God is touched by confident and consistent effort. The section dealing with the effectiveness of prayer makes obvious why perseverance is important.

“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (v.9) A common way of reading this verse is to understand the threefold appeal as repetition for emphasis. I think it is more profitable to see each admonition as sequential.

When in need, whether for meaning, healing or anything else that can be granted by God, we are invited to ask, “for every one who asks receives.” (v.10a) What we receive, I believe, are the graces necessary to seek. This is where persistence is particularly necessary. That which we seek is often not easily obtained, not because God is deaf to our petition or uncaring about our circumstances. He simply knows that we will only benefit from the gift if we grow in the process. Yet Jesus encourages us to be steadfast: “He who seeks finds.” (v.10b)

At the end of this long quest through the darkness, if we are truly persistent, we find a door. Jesus urges us to knock. We must make the effort to acknowledge that the gift is not of our making, nor is it even the product of our search; it is freely given by God who sees that our authentic search has made us ready to receive it: “To him who knocks it will be opened.” (v.10c)

This expression reminds us that God too is knocking: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev.3:20)

The opening of the door is a metaphor for entering into intimate communion with God. God’s nature too is defined by relationship. Though the relationship between the three persons of God is sufficient, his joy is in our loving relationship to him.

The conclusion of the parable is obvious. Persistent prayer moves the heart of God. It honours God by confirming our reliance. Persistent prayer changes the world around us because the seeking is a testimony to our confidence in the purpose of the search. Finally, persistent prayer changes us because the effort involved builds community with God and with one another.

It may take years, but the Lord responds because of our persistence. Never give up prayer. Often we say that God answers prayer in the manner that corresponds to our real need and not necessarily what we want. I think that is a simplistic view. In reality, as we seek with the grace of God received in the asking, our prayer changes itself. We come to a better understanding of our human reality in relation to the will of God. Eventually our prayer takes us to the door where our desire converges with it.

Sometimes the asking itself is a protracted process. During years of absence from the Church, my mother prayed tirelessly—probably daily—for my “conversion” back to the faith of my childhood. Her prayer was answered, in rather dramatic fashion, almost 15 years later. She asked; I sought; and Jesus knocked. That’s not exactly how the parable goes but that’s what happened in my case.

The most amazing thing about prayer is that we learn to pray actually by praying, and so it will become easier with persistence. Asking becomes a reflex because we come to place all our confidence in God. Searching becomes second nature and we are less inclined to be frustrated by the darkness. The quest is filled with grace and wonder. We get bold in knocking because we know how eager God is to open the door.

Many saints through the centuries have provided examples of perseverance in asking, seeking and knocking. For example, Saint Thérèse de Lisieux advocated five essential components of what she called “The Little Way”. These are: joyful humility as a child of God; bold confidence in God’s mercy and loving-kindness; tranquil trust in the actions of God; persistence in prayer as a simple raising of the heart to God; and daily practice of the little way of love. Manifestly, perseverance—fortified by humility, confidence, kindness, trust and love—made her prayer pleasing to God. She journeyed by the little way.

Persistence in prayer is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (patience) and contributes to the development of virtue (fortitude). Too often, we are lured by our instant gratification/disposable products culture into thinking that a remote-control form of prayer, with virtually instantaneous results, can govern God’s power. We all stand to benefit from patience. Similarity, we need to better understand the merits of fortitude, which safeguards God’s precious gifts, namely charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity, which are constantly assaulted by values of the world. Fortitude must be built up like a muscle and nourished like a living system.

Persistence in prayer is also the humble recognition that God is sovereign, but not capricious. God’s timing is not ours for the simple reason that his judgement is more encompassing that ours. God takes into account the prayers of everyone as well as our readiness to receive the favour that we seek. His objective is always global good, not proximate pleasure.

In the book of Ecclesiasties, we read: “Let nothing hinder thee from praying always” (18:22). St. Paul counsels, “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Rom.12:12). He repeats the advice in Ephesians 6: 18; Colossians 4: 2; 1Timothy 2: 8; and Thessalonians 5: 17.