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Why Should We Pray?
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
In reflecting on the subject of prayer, what has been said so far was mainly directed to the mind, which answers the question of "what" something is. But we know that prayer is not something that we merely think about or speculate on; it is something we are to do. And consequently we direct our attention now to motivating the will, where we ask the question "why?".
Why pray? We must pray, because God is God and because we are we. This is not a clever phrase; it is at the heart of human existence and the bedrock of our faith.
Prayer is so universal among believing mankind as to almost describe believing mankind. It is also insisted upon in Christian revelation. It must be important. It is not only important; it is indispensable. It is essential because it answers the two most fundamental statements we can make about God and ourselves.
We begin by asking, "Who is God?" Reason, and especially faith, tell us that God is the absolutely Necessary Being, whose necessity is more than the obvious one of answering to the needs of our philosophy as a kind of footnote to our logic where we say, "There must be a God to explain the universe." That is a kind of utilitarian necessity; we then only need to postulate a god to explain why anything exists. No, it is deeper than that. God is that Being who cannot not be! That is the profoundest and yet the clearest expression of who God is. He has to be or, for us who have a past tense, He had to be. He cannot not have existed. He alone, considering all the rest of the universe including man - cannot, not have been.
In other words, there cannot have been nothing. All the rest of the world need not have existed. In fact, we, and everything else but God, can best be defined as "unnecessary beings". But some being must be: that Being is God. He is in contrast, then, with the rest of the universe, which need not have been, and that for the best of reasons.
Time is (and that is what time is) when it was not; time began when the world began. God alone is timeless. And what was not, clearly, need not be. This God wants us unnecessary, intelligent beings to acknowledge Him, the only Necessary Being. In a word, He wants us to pay attention to Him as God.
We want people to pay attention to us. Watch a child of six months, or of three years. Depending on its temperament,it may go for five minutes or ten but not much longer before it makes a fuss or a noise, or does something to attract attention from its mother: a responsive word, a caress, or even a rebuke. Silence for another five or ten minutes. Then the sequence starts again. As we grow out of infancy into adulthood, we prolong these silences - but not much. We want, because we need, to have people periodically but regularly pay attention to us. How dark life becomes if we feel that this fundamental need of our being (having people pay attention to us) is not satisfied.
Through all of this God is telling us (not because He needs it) that He too definitely wants us to pay attention to Him, to Who He is, to His existence, to know that He is around. In a word, He wants us to worship Him by our adoration, which can be simplified into saying: Adoration is worship by paying attention to God.
Our Christian faith goes far beyond reason to tell us that God is not only the Necessary Being, but in His own nature is an eternal, loving, triune society. God, though perfect unity, is a plurality: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Anticipated in the Old Covenant and amplified in the New, this is the image of a God who defines Himself in St. John's Epistle as Love. He is at once all-beautiful, all-holy, all-powerful and all-knowing, all-perfect, and all-embracing of every attribute to which the human heart can respond.
He is that Love not only because of what He does for us in being loving; He is that God Who would have been Love had He never made the world, because He shares His Infinity - each of the Persons with two others. You see, even God must have within Himself someone else with whom He shares. He is not only loving; He is Love.
He wants us to give Him not only our attention, which is adoration, but our affection, which is love. Not only to adore Him, but to love Him, knowing that all other loves derive from His Infinity. They also converge, if they are valid, in His own Divine Heart, which as the God-man He now makes it so easy for us to love. So much for the first answer to why we must pray: because God is Who He is.
Our second reason why we should pray is because we are we. This means a great many things, but especially the few we will now consider.
Why pray? Because we are in constant and sometimes in desperate need. This is the divine strategy to bring us to pray. That is why we are in need! We must pray to obtain the fulfillment of our need from the God who could have planned it otherwise, but did not. Talk about being divinely shrewd, or, we like to think, divinely cunning: "Lord, why did You do it this way?" He being the Author of the need, could He not have given us all that we need immediately in one burst of generosity? Of course! But He deliberately has withheld. He has deliberately kept back; not given us many things that we need.
How do we know we need? Because we have desires. How do we know those needs are not satisfied? Because these desires are still unfulfilled. Talk about being cunning: Now clearly, God has withheld so many things which our heart tells us we need, not because He does not want to give them to us, but because He wants us to ask Him for them in a thousand ways. Each of us has his or her own quota of needs; all are divinely planted, not merely permitted, but planted by God in order that, being aware of the need, we might do the obvious thing that faith tells us we should do: Pray. "Lord, look at me. Come to my assistance." And He does! That is why He gives us the need. That is the first reason we are creatures of need.
But we are also recipients of God's goodness. This is from the past. And that past we know is not only the distant past but also the recent! In our personal history, His goodness is recognized from the first moment of our existence. There wouldn't have been a first moment of our existence without God, because as we have already seen, there wouldn't have been a "we" except there was a "He" who existed necessarily and brought us into being. He didn't have to.
From that first moment all through the years (better, all through the moments until the present one which passes the moment we speak of it) how much (how everything!) we have received. The "received" is only our human manner of speaking. Relative to God, all we have we have received, so that have and received are the same, because our very existence is something that has been received. And of course, unless we first have ourselves, we cannot receive anything else. There wouldn't be anyone around to receive it. All is from God.
So we ask, "Why pray?" Because there is so much for which to be thankful. And so we pray in petition for the future (and this is much more spontaneous). We do not have to be told to pray for what we need, though we should be reminded to pray in gratitude for our whole past.
Here I would like to add a commentary. I deliberately used the word thankful in order to speak generically of four different ways in which we are to pray "thank-fully". Each presupposes the one that precedes it, and each in sequence becomes more sublime than the preceding. I will be coining words, because our English language is so weak to express the mysteries of our faith.
We are thankful towards God when we practice thanks-thinking. All thankfulness begins in the mind. If I am going to be as grateful as God wants me to be towards Him, I must have a conscious awareness of all the good things that God has been and is giving me. For some, it is only after years that it dawns on them: "My Lord, I am supposed to start thinking of Your benefits toward me. So I might practice 'thanks-thinking'!"
Secondly, not stopping with "thanks-thinking", we go on to "thanks-saying". God wants us to articulate our grateful thoughts, to continue to say "Thank you" and not to feel that because we have said it a thousand times that God is bored by our gratitude! Think of ourselves. Don't we appreciate people thanking us? And the bigger the favor, the more we expect, I might almost say, a "splurge" of thanks in gratitude.
But that is not enough, for we must not only be expressing our gratitude verbally, but showing our gratitude by "thanks-doing", doing things out of gratitude for God. This may be a new thought. If it isn't, it can always be reinforced in practice. Looking back over all that God has done for us (so many things) we begin to look at what we are doing for Him, that we wouldn't be doing except for the fact that we are so grateful. "Lord, this is because of all you have done for me!" And then to use the expression I like, "What then am I doing for Thee?"
Finally, beyond our thanks-thinking, thanks-saying, and thanks-doing, the highest form of gratitude towards God (and how casually we use the expression) is "thanks-giving", which should really have one more word to make it clear: thanks-giving up. In other words, out of gratitude for all that God has given to us we sacrifice what, except for our gratitude, would hardly occur to us to offer to God. So much for a very rich subject.
But we have one more level of reflection on the subject "Why Pray?". In answering the question, we are still saying "because we are we".
In conclusion, we pray because we have sinned. We have offended God, and because we have offended Him, we deserve to be punished by Him. We want to be reconciled with Him! We want Him to be merciful to us in spite of our sins. So we pray in order to beg forgiveness and so expiate by our allegiance to God for our past willful estrangement from God - an allegiance stronger than it would ever have been if we had not sinned. Our sins correspond to the 'from'; our expiation corresponds to the 'to'!
We pray to make reparation or, more commonly, make up for our want of obedience to God's will in the past by telling Him (and showing it!) that from now on, we want to make His will our will. You know, the essence of sin is doing our will contrary to the will of God - that is all that sin is but that is plenty.
From now on, in expiation we want to make His will utterly our own and if need be (we leave it up to Him) to share in His sufferings in order to prove how sincere we are. In fact, the most powerful prayer we can make is the prayer of pain. Everyone suffers, but not everyone expiates. We expiate when we suffer in order to make reparation for our own sins and (mysterious language) cooperate as members of Christ's Body in the expiation, thereby bringing about reconciliation of the sins of others and joining ourselves with the Great Expiator, Jesus Christ.
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