In our Epistle, St. Paul says we don’t really know how to pray,
but we pray anyway because when we do something happens.
The Spirit is at work in our prayer no matter how we do it,
and the Spirit us up to something important.
“Prayer is at the heart of all religion,” says John Macquarrie
the greatest 20th Century Episcopal theologian.
And the greatest Roman Catholic theologian of that century,
Karl Rahner concurred, saying:
“Prayer is the great religious act.
What [a person] fundamentally is in the depths of his being, . . .
that is prayer.
It is the acceptance of the prime fact of being created . . .
It is the all-pervasive longing for happiness . . .”
In Thomas Wolfe’s novel, Look Homeward Angel, the hero,
young Eugene Gant, a bright intellectual young man,
doesn’t know what to believe in, if anything.
But as his older brother Ben is dying, Eugene prays,
and the description of his prayer
is one of the greatest passages in American literature:
“Eugene . . . fell upon his knees. He began to pray.
He did not believe in God, nor in Heaven or Hell,
but he was afraid they might be true. . .
He did not believe in devils or angels
but he was afraid they might be true. . .
All that he had read in books, all the tranquil wisdom
he had professed so glibly in his philosophy course,
and the great names of Plato and Plotinus,
of Spinoza and Immanuel Kant, of Hegel and Descartes,
left him now . . .
So, with insane sing-song repetition,
he began to mutter over and over again,
‘Whoever You Are, be good to Ben tonight.
Show him the way. . .”
He lost count of the minutes, the hours:
he heard only the feeble rattle of dying breath,
and his own synchronic prayer.”
I have known praying agnostics like Eugene
and I have known Christians who do not pray.
The agnostics are closer to God.
Prayer is the very heart of religion.
But what is it? How does it work? Does it work for that matter?
Paul said, most of our prayers are not wise,
mature, or theologically sound.
We are not spiritual masters.
Our hearts and minds are ensnared in worldly assumptions and values.
So either we pray badly out of our worldly assumptions and values
or we pray badly by lying, pretending to be more spiritual than we are.
But that doesn’t matter.
Prayer works its purpose in spite of us.
The greatest purpose of prayer is communion with God,
the Source and Destiny of our lives.
St. Thomas Aquinas said something about the benefit of prayer
and Lauren Winner gives us a great picture of what he said,
in her book, Girl Meets God. She says:
“Aquinas wrote, ‘Prayer is profitable because it makes us the
familiars of God.’ I like that language.[Winter says.]
It conjures up God with me as his little black cat
everywhere under foot.”
Through prayer, we encounter God and are changed by that encounter.
Acquaintance with God makes us holy.
Kenneth Leech said,
“To pray is to open oneself to the possibility of sainthood,
to the possibility of being set on fire by the Spirit.”
That matters – not just for us but also for the world.
Simone Weil said the world needs saints
like a plague-stricken city needs doctors.
Look around you. You’ll see she’s right.
So the greatest benefit of prayer is the change it works in us.
But prayer is also effective in bringing healing, mercy, and justice
to others in concrete human situations.
Prayer isn’t magic.
It isn’t a voodoo incantation to impose our will by paranormal means.
We don’t conjure God up like a genie from a bottle to do our bidding.
Yet, our prayer is part of God’s grace.
Today’s lesson from Romans hints at how that works;
but it requires understanding some basic Christian doctrine.
Our God is not the Supreme Being, not the Cosmic Patriarch,
not the Puppet Master of the Universe.
Our God is the Trinity – a field of relationship
– a personal procreative relationship that gives birth to all reality.
That relational God is present in all situations, not controlling them,
but influencing them, calling them, luring and cajoling
them toward healing, mercy, and justice.
The Triune God is a swirling vortex of love
drawing all people and all situations into itself.
And here’s the kicker.
When we pray, we become part of that vortex.
St. Paul said,
The Spirit helps us in our weakness
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
The Spirit prays with us and through us.
No matter how inept or wrongheaded our ego-warped prayers may be,
the Spirit breaths through us back into the Father and the Son,
the Serene Center and the Compassionate Heart of Reality.
Our prayer is a conduit in the flow of Trinitarian love.
We lend our energy, our wills, our thoughts and feelings,
to the swirling vortex.
In the act of prayer, we are drawn into the Trinity
and we expand the perimeter of its influence,
stretching it deeper into the situation for which we pray.
St. John of the Cross said,
“God has so ordained to sanctify us
through the frail instrumentality of each other.”
God has so ordained to speak to Godself through our prayer,
and in that speaking, breathing, sighing
to extend divine love farther into the world.
The 17th Century Anglican poet-priest, George Herbert,
called prayer, “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.”
The Spirit is the Lord the Giver of Life.
Genesis says, the Spirit, the breath of God swept across
the flowing wetness of rivers, streams, and ocean tides
into Adam’s nostrils giving him life.
We live because God breathes into us.
Prayer is our way of breathing back into God.
It disposes our will toward God.
It turns our attention toward God.
We acknowledge that we are leaves on the Tree of Life.
That disposition of the will, turning of the attention,
acknowledgment of the relationship makes the connection.
We consent to let God breathe through us back to Godself.
Am I saying that if we do not pray that God is less able to help?
Frankly, yes, I am saying just that.
God creates the world by allowing it to be free of his power.
To the extent the world does not freely submit itself in prayer,
the world eludes his gracious mercy.
When we submit to God in prayer,
we draw the world with us into a nearer communion
with its source and add a channel of grace.
A friend and fellow bishop has a young adult daughter who suffered stroke.
She was in a coma for a long time.
After that, she was hospitalized in a vegetative state for months.
During those months we prayed for her every day.
A few weeks ago, she moved her hands for the first time.
She moved her hands in American Sign Language.
She signed, “Pray for me.”
Today she is back home making good progress.
Prayer isn’t magic. It’s mystery.
We don’t control its results.
We often don’t even see its results.
But prayer is real.
In the act of prayer we are changed
and the world is brightened by a spark of hope,revitalized by the breath of life itself.