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Why Should We Pray?

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


We are reflecting on the subject of prayer. And we have so far seen the meaning of prayer, where what we said was mainly directed to the mind, which answers to 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 wish to address ourselves in the present conference to motivating the will. But we ask the question "why." So the title of the present conference is "why pray?"

If, as we know, prayer is so universal in believing mankind, almost describing believing mankind, and is so much insisted upon in Christian Revelation, it must be important. It is not only important, it is indispensable, and the reason it is indispensable is because it answers to the two most fundamental statements we can make about God and ourselves. So we ask once more "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. What I would like to do is to briefly recapitulate and go over each of these two fundamental statements. We pray because God is God and because we are we.

So we begin by asking, "who is God?" Reason, and especially faith tell us that God is the absolutely necessary being, whose necessity is not only 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. Well, that is a kind of utilitarian necessity. We then would need to postulate a God to explain why anything exists. No, it is deeper than that. God is that being who cannot not be. The profoundest and yet the clearest expression of who is God: He has to be. Or for us who have a past tense, He had to be. He cannot not have existed. He alone, otherwise in all the rest of the universe, including little we, He alone cannot not have been, in other words, there cannot have been nothing. All the rest of the world need not have existed. We and everything else but God can best be defined as unnecessary beings. But a being must be; that being is God. By contrast then, with the rest of the universe, it need not have been, and that for the best of reasons. Time was, and that's what time is, when it was not. Time began when the world began. God 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. How soon we learn that we want people to pay attention to us. Watch a child of six months, or of three years. I have done it. And I have since both spoken about and written on it. 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; even a rebuke, or a caress, and 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. How we want, because we need, to have people periodically, but regularly, pay attention to us. And 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 that He too wants, not because He needs, but He definitely wants us to pay attention to Him, to His existence, to know that He is around, to who He is.

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 necessary being, but in His own nature, 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 God defines, defining Himself in John's writings as "Love." He is at once all beautiful, and all holy, all powerful and all knowing, all perfect and all embracing of every attribute to which the human heart can respond. And He is that love, not only because of what He does for us, in being loving, He is that God, and would have been, had He never made the world, because He shares this 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. So that He wants us to give him, not only our attention, which is adoration, but our affection, which is love. To then, not only adore Him, but love Him, knowing that all other loves derive from His infinity, as 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.

But our second reason why we should pray is because we are we. This means many things, but especially these. Why pray? Because we are in constant and sometimes in desperate need. Great! That is why we are in need. This is the divine strategy to bring us to pray. We then must pray to obtain from the God who could have planned it otherwise, but did not. Let's pause here just for a moment. Talk about being divinely shrewd, or we like to think, divinely cunning. Lord, why did you do it this way? Could He not have given us all that we need? He being the author of the need, all of a sudden, in one burst of generosity? Of course, but He deliberately has withheld, do we hear that? He has deliberately kept back, not given many things that we need. How do we know we need them? Because we have got desires. How do we know those needs are not satisfied? Because these desires are still unfulfilled. Talk about being cunning. Now clearly, He has withheld so many things which our heart tells us we need, not because He does not want to give them to us. Oh no, but because He wants us to ask Him for them in a thousand ways. Talk about a tantalizing God- gives us desires, withholds their fulfillment until and what is more important, unless we ask to have them fulfilled. We need help. We need strength. We need courage. We need prudence. We need self-control. We need patience. We need love and understanding. We-need light in how to handle difficult situations. We need trust to face the future. And so all of us, as our own thousands of needs all divinely planted, not merely permitted, planted by God, in order that, being aware of the need we might do the obvious thing that faith tells us we should," 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 we. We are creatures of need.

But then we are also recipients of God' goodness. This is from the past. And that past we know is not only the distant past, but the past, well, that has just passed. From the first moment of our existence: first moment of our existence, there wouldn't have been a first moment of our existence, because 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. And 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, and that by the way is a good place to pause. How much we have-long pause-the received, is only our human matter 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. Right? There won't be anyone around to receive it. All of this from God. So we ask "why pray," because there is so much for which to be thankful. And so we pray, as we have just seen, and this is much more spontaneous, in petition for the future we hardly have to be, though we should still be reminded, to pray for what we need. But also in gratitude for the whole past.

But 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 "thankfully." Each presupposes the one that preceded. And each in sequence becomes more sublime than the preceding. If we are thankful towards God, when we offer Him I will be coining words, you see, 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 and for some after years, it dawns on them: my Lord, I am supposed to start thinking of your benefits toward me, so that I might practice thanks-thinking. A conscious awareness of all the good things that God has been and is giving to me.

Secondly, not to stop with thanks-thinking, to go on to thanks-saying. He wants us to articulate our grateful thoughts. To say thank you, and not to feel that because we have said it a thousand times already, that God is bored by our gratitude. Oh no. And the bigger the favor, look at ourselves, don't we appreciate people thanking us? And the bigger the favor, the more we expect them to, I might almost say "splurge" in their gratitude. We like it. But that is not enough. Not only expressing our gratitude verbally, but showing our gratitude by thanks-doing. Doing things out of gratitude for God. This may be a new thought. And if it isn't a new thought, it can always be reinforced in practice.

There are so many things that, looking back over all that God has done for us, that as we look as what we are doing for Him (strange language, but we have got freedom) that we wouldn't be doing except that we are so grateful, Lord, all you have done for me. What then, to use the expression I love, "what am I doing for thee?"

Finally, beyond thanks-thinking, thanks-saying, and thanks-doing. The highest form of gratitude towards God and how casually we use the expression is thanksgiving. We should really have one more word to make it clear: thanksgiving-up. When, in other words, out of gratitude, of 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 "why pray." Remember, we are answering the question "why pray" and we because we are we.

Finally then, we have sinned. We have offended God, and because we have offended Him, we deserve to be punished by Him, and we want to be reconciled with Him. In a word, we want Him, in spite of our sins, to be merciful. Why then pray, in order to beg forgiveness, and so expiate by our allegiance, watch the prepositions, by our allegiance, stronger than it ever would have been otherwise, except that we have sinned, our allegiance to God, for our past willful estrangement from God. Our sins correspond to the "from," our expiation corresponds to the "to." In a word, then, we pray to make reparation, or more commonly make up, for our woeful 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. Because you know the essence of sin is doing our will contrary to the will of God, that's all but that's plenty that sin is. From now on then, in expiation, we want to make utterly, His will our own. And if need be, and leave it up to Him, to let us 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 and thereby reconciliation of the sins of others. And thereby join ourselves with the great expiator, Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
No reproductions shall be made without prior written permission.

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