Not About Me: Prayer is the Work of a Lifetime
by Merold Westphal
Our neighbors were visiting a cathedral in Italy with their three-year-old son. He saw a woman kneeling in one of the pews and asked what she was doing. “She’s praying,” he was told. “She’s asking God for things.” A few minutes later his parents found him kneeling in one of the pews. In response to their query, he replied that he was asking God for – gelato!
There’s something right about that prayer. After all, Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread, if not exactly for gelato. But it is the prayer of a three-year-old, a beginner in the school of prayer who is not yet ready even for kindergarten. I remember reading a list of the five elements of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition (for self) and intercession (for others). It triggered a shocking recognition: the most important part of prayer is the most difficult. I feel reasonably at home with the last four items on the list. But praise? It is the one item in the list not concerned with benefits for me or those I care about. Here we have that disinterested delight (to cite Evelyn Underhill) in the bare goodness of God (to cite Luther) that escapes the self’s preoccupation with itself.
Praise presupposes, I believe, a prior kenotic gesture, an inner posture from which all five elements of prayer most properly emerge. It is the willing decentering of the self. Ironically enough, it is utterly fundamental to what is increasingly called centering prayer. For centering prayer is anything but positing the self as its own center; it is rather a movement from oneself toward God both at and as the center of one’s being.
Three specific prayers might teach us this gesture. Let us begin with the prayer of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3. Putting together his responses to Eli and then to the Lord, we get our first prayer: “Here am I, for you called me. Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” While this speech act is an expression of Samuel’s freedom, there is more heteronomy than autonomy in it. He does not originate the conversation but is called, called forth, even called into being by a voice not his own. The meaning of the situation in which he finds himself is not determined by his horizons of expectation, which are simultaneously surprised and shattered. Nor is it just his situation that is changed; his very identity is changed as he becomes no longer merely Hannah’s son or Eli’s helper, but the one who stands coram deo, in God’s presence.
This challenge to our autonomy has the form of authoritative asymmetry. In response to the voice, Samuel identifies himself as the servant (ehbed, bond-servant) of the Lord, anticipating the many New Testament epistles that begin with the author identifying himself as a slave (doulos) of God and of Jesus Christ, and the Pauline identification of the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ as “taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7). Thus “Here am I” signifies not merely presence but putting oneself at the disposal of another, an act confirmed and specified in Samuel’s “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
We can learn three things about prayer from Samuel. First, we learn that prayer is the task of a lifetime, so that even those who have been praying all their lives may not have gotten much farther than kindergarten. For Samuel’s prayer is the presentation of himself to God as a listener — and that is easier said than done. It is an act that can scarcely be said to be performed more than to a certain degree. We know from merely human conversations how enormously difficult it is really to listen, to be fully present to our interlocutors. So we only kid ourselves, like the tyro who reports that he learned to play golf yesterday, if we think we have finished learning how to listen to God as God deserves to be heard. The praying soul seeks to be fully present to God, but that is the always unfulfilled task of a lifetime.
Second, we learn why silence is such an important part of prayer. It is those who seem to know the most about prayer who emphasize this most strongly, and now we can see why. We cannot listen very well to the voice of God if we are chattering ourselves, or even if we merely keep ourselves surrounded by noise, almost as a barrier to protect us from hearing the voice of any other. As the 14th-century mystic Johannes Tauler puts it, “And therefore you should observe silence! In that manner the Word can be uttered and heard within. For surely, if you choose to speak, God must fall silent. There is no better way of serving the Word than by silence and by listening.” Prayer needs silence, not only external but also internal silence; for our minds and hearts can be, and usually are, very noisy places even when we emit no audible sound.
Finally, we learn why scripture and prayer are so integrally intertwined, why prayer can never be separated from some form of lectio divina. God speaks in and even as silence, to be sure, but prayer cannot grow in a purely apophatic soil, if for no other reason than that in such a context no God personal enough to speak is to be found. If we are engaged in prayer rather than yogic meditation, it is the God who speaks in scripture to whom we listen. The very call to which we may respond, “Here am I,” can come as a mysterious voice in the night, but it typically comes through the words of scripture, either directly or indirectly in preaching, hymnody, liturgy and so forth. Before prayer becomes a fivefold speech act on our part, it is listening to the word of God as found in scripture.
Very closely related to Samuel’s prayer is Mary’s prayer at the annunciation. This is the prayer that precedes the canticle we know as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and we can hear this earlier prayer as the prior condition of the possibility of that overflowing outburst of praise and thanksgiving. We might say that in the earlier prayer Mary assumes the posture from which her praise proceeds. The Magnificat is so heavily dependent on the song of Samuel’s mother, Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10), that we can only assume that Mary also knows the story of Samuel and of his prayer. In response to the angel Gabriel’s stunning and scary news about what is soon to happen, she replies, simply, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lukel:38). She speaks these words immediately to Gabriel, but she understands him to be a messenger from God. Ultimately she is responding to God; her words are a prayer.
In this prayer we find Mary’s theology and ethics in a nutshell. The theology revolves around the notion of God as one who speaks, or better, as the One who speaks. God is not so much First Cause as First Speaker, the One whose word is always the beginning. Before I speak or act or even am, God has always already spoken.
Mary’s ethics is one of holy receptivity: Let it be, If we see this not merely as resignation before the inevitable or submission before the superior but as welcoming the will of another, we are again reminded of how prayer is the decentering task of a lifetime. We might call this an adverbial ethics. It is about Mary’s basic posture or fundamental project. It signifies the “how” rather than the “what” of her life, though it is not without a “what.”
In looking at Samuel’s “Here am I,” our focus was on the phrase “for you called.” Mary’s “Here am I” gives us the opportunity to look more closely at the act itself. It is an act of self-presentation to the God who is already present. There is no attempt, because there is no need, to find God. Having spoken, God is already present. Mary would easily understand Augustine’s notion that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves (interior intimo meo) and his bittersweet confession, “Late it was that I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late I loved you! And, look, you were within me and I was outside . . . You were with me, and I was not with you.” She understands that God is here, unusually so in the present instance, and the only question is whether I am willing and able to be here too. No doubt part of the problem is that while the messenger may be quite visible (we don’t know the form of her visitation), God is not. As Jean-Louis Crétien puts it, “The first function speech performs in prayer is therefore a self-manifestation before the invisible other.”
Mary also understands that to be present to God she must turn away from the world in which she has been immersed. Not that there is something evil about the world, into which, in fact, God will send her back with a task. It is rather that apart from that turning the world is defined by her agenda or the world’s, however innocent, and not God’s. As Thomas Merton puts it so beautifully, “Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between ‘things’ and ‘God’. . , as if His creatures were His rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God.”
Mary’s prayer is echoed in two prayers of her son. The first is the prayer he taught his disciples to pray. To get a feeling for its force, let us listen to the way it can all too easily be intended:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be my name,
my kingdom come,
my will be done on earth as yours is in heaven.
Even to the most cynical secularist, this is bound to sound like sacrilege. The crassness of this formulation is barely mitigated if we substitute “our” name, kingdom and will for “my.” We hear the decentering force of the prayer in its actual wording: your name, your kingdom, your will (Matt. 6:9-10). Here is a triple threat against all aspiration to autonomy, a triple abandonment of my preoccupation with myself. After, but only after, I have made this move, I am in a position rightly to pray for material and spiritual blessings, daily bread and forgiveness, for myself and for “us.” And no sooner have I done so than the doxology, which is sometimes included in the prayer and sometimes serves as its liturgical trailer, reminds me of what I can so quickly forget: “for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.” The Amen (so be it) that concludes this prayer, echoes the “Let it be” of Mary’s prayer, just as the “your name, “your kingdom” and “your will” echo her “your word.” To feel the full force of the self-transformation called for by this self-transcendence is to understand how learning to pray is the task of a lifetime.
The second prayer in which Mary’s is echoed by her son comes to us from Gethsemane. Anticipating the violent death that is about to strike, Jesus offers perhaps the most basic prayer of petition, which we might call the foxhole prayer: Lord, spare my life. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But he prays this prayer from the posture that is its precondition in the sense that in a different posture it would be a different prayer altogether. The posture is that of being at God’s disposal: “yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 26:39). Here Jesus remembers the “your name . . . your kingdom . . . your will” that he taught his disciples to pray; here he echoes his mother’s “let it be with me according to your word,” of which he may or may not have known anything; and here he enacts the kenosis celebrated in the early Christian hymn in praise of him who
taking the form of a slave.
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:7-8)
Whether we kneel, sit or stand to pray, the inner posture or basic attitude we find in these prayers is presupposed by all five dimensions of prayer mentioned above. A couple of examples: The self still centered on itself might consider confession as a useful means to an assuaged conscience, to divine blessings here, and to heavenly reward hereafter. The decentered self need not deny these considerations, but it takes a different posture. This is beautifully expressed in a prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer and the Lutheran Book of Worship, where confession of sins is followed by a request for forgiveness. To what end?
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your holy name. Amen (emphasis added)
The self that has begun the kenotic journey prays for forgiveness in order, above all, to be more deeply decentered.
The other example is from a prayer of thanksgiving found in the Book of Common Prayer. At about the midpoint, thanksgiving turns into petition, asking that God will
give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days.
This is not writing a thank-you note to Aunt Susie after Christmas so she will be well disposed toward me when my birthday comes around in February. The telos of thanksgiving is that through an awareness of “your mercies” our lives may be more completely given over to “your praise” and “your service.”
Another prayer for our consideration is a line from a song by Elvis: “I want you, I need you, I love you with all my heart.” I know that it wasn’t a prayer as sung by Elvis. It is addressed to the latest hormonal heartthrob, and the reference to the heart seems to be a euphemism for another seat of desire. But let us imagine that these words are addressed by the believing soul to God. They exhibit the fundamental trope of Hebrew poetry, parallelism, in which the same thing is said a second and even a third time in a slightly different way. In Elvis’s version, “I love you” adds nothing new to “I want you” and “I need you.” And therein lies the problem. Even when we convert the earthly eros into the heavenly by addressing these words to God, it’s all about what I want, what I need and what I, in those senses, love. The prospects for deepening our understanding prayer as a deeply decentering posture do not seem very great.
If it’s always darkest just before the dawn, we might find our way forward by seeing the problem in its starkest form. When I want to introduce my students to the difference between eros and agape, need love and gift love, where sexual desire is only a single instance of a more general structure, I say, “I love cheese omelet. Would you like me to love you too?” This is a perfectly legitimate use of the word “love” in English. And its meaning here is clear. What I love is what I devour, what I assimilate to myself, what I make into a means to my ends. I give to it a double career: in part it becomes what satisfies and strengthens me, and in part it becomes what I flush away as worse than useless.
Now comes our first glimmer of hope. Even before we convert these words to a prayer, this alimentary attitude begins to unravel as I am deconstructed by my own desire. I want you, I need you, I love you. I can say these words in such a way as to make a sex object of the addressee. They can mean “I want you to belong to me so that you are my (play)thing; I will dispose of you as I want.” This project can be frighteningly successful. All too often it is possible to dominate another who, in such a setting, becomes codependent on my addiction to myself.
But my own word, “you,” undermines and rebukes such a speech act. I contradict myself when I say “you” in order to reduce someone to an it. It’s still about what I want, but to paraphrase Martin Buber, the I that relates to a you is a different I from the I that relates to an it. I am still the one speaking, not the one spoken to, but a certain decentering has begun, whether I like it or even notice it. It cannot address me, but you can. To desire you is to desire vulnerability to another.
Now let us return to the supposition that the you to whom I address these words is God. I could hardly mean, or at least could hardly admit to myself that I mean, “I want you to belong to me so that you are my thing; I will dispose of you as I want.” That is as hopelessly crass as the my name, my kingdom, my will” version of the Lord’s Prayer. But I might mean by “I love you” simply that I want and need your help, your blessings, the benefits of having you on my side. Here, once again, decentering seems to get derailed by my preoccupation with myself.
But now suppose that what I mean is really “I want you,” you yourself, not your gifts.
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God. (Ps. 42:102)
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.
What has changed here is more fundamental than the replacement of a hunger metaphor with a thirst metaphor, and even more fundamental than a replacement of an it with a you. This is not just any old you, though what is true in this case may well be true in a measure in relation to human yous as well. But if we ask how it might be possible to “have” or to “possess” God, to drink of the living water (John 4:7-14, 7:37-39), we will realize that the “you belong to me” path leads away from our goal, and only the “I belong to you — I am at your disposal” path leads to it. God cannot be “had” in any other way. God is always at our disposal, always giving Godself to those who are willing to take. But the only way to take this gilt is to place ourselves at God’s disposal, to give not this or that but our very selves to God. The hymn writer gets it right when describing the love between Christ and the believer:
His forever, only His; Who the Lord and me shall part?
Ah, with what a rest of bliss Christ can fill the loving
Heav’n and earth may fade and flee, Firstborn light in
But while God and I shall be, I am His, and He is mine.
Only after I am his can it be that he is mine. Rightly to address God as “you” is to present oneself to God as “yours.”
When we learn to speak in this way, a certain transubstantiation takes place and water is changed into wine. What I mean is simply this: eros is not merely reconciled with agape, it becomes agape. Need love and gift love, desire and disposability become two sides of the same corn. Johannes Tauler expresses this nicely when he says that true prayer is a “loving ascent to God, in profound longing and humble surrender.”
But perhaps we shouldn’t get too carried away, as if we occupy such a space very fully or for very long. All too often we experience the two sides of this coin as distinct, and all too easily we fall back into an eros that is not (yet) agape. Prayer is the task of a lifetime. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 5, 2005, pp. 20-25. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission.