The Articulation of Desire
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr. Aidan Nichols preaches a Catholic defence of the Prayer of Petition.
The readings of today’s Liturgy are meant to say something about one part of the God-man relationship, the part we call the ‘prayer of petition’.
‘Petition’ means asking God for things. Moses asks God to give victory to the children of Israel as they make their way into the promised Land. Jesus encourages his disciples to keep on asking God for entry into the promised Land of Heaven.
There may be – there are! – other important aspects to our relation with God – thanking him for what he has done in his wonderful works of creation and salvation; adoring him for who he is, the endless Source of all the marvels around us; or, most simply of all, sitting and ‘contemplating’ him, just being with him.
But to judge by this Sunday’s Gospel, one equally important feature of the relation between God and humans is urging petitions on God, hammering away until you get out of him what you want.
And if, as today’s Epistle says, ‘all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching’ – meaning all Old Testament Scripture, because what we call the New Testament was still in the making – then we have to take all of it seriously, including that bit of Exodus about Moses. And certainly as Christians we have to take the words of Jesus with the utmost seriousness. They are, after all, the words of One who is personally divine, one Being with the Father.
If that sounds slightly defensive, it’s because I’m aware some people pooh-pooh the prayer of petition. They’ve got their doubts about the whole idea of prayer as asking God for things. Here are one or two of their objections, along with some idea of how we might respond to them as Catholic Christians who try to find God through the whole of Scripture as read in Tradition, and not just take the bits and pieces that fit in neatly with a modern mind-set.
First of all, people say: doesn’t petitionary prayer encourage an immature attitude to God? Isn’t it a kind of self-centredness, all the more dangerous because it’s got a high spiritual sound to it? Well, of course it could be that in particular cases. But it could also be a matter of fundamental honesty, at the opposite pole from childishness.
Prayer is the articulation of desire. It is bringing our desires into the open, making a clean breast of them before God. We’re going to have all kinds of desires, small and large, good and less good, anyway. If we don’t bring that whole dimension of ourselves as desiring, wanting, beings into relation with God, it won’t disappear, it’ll just be part of ourselves where we keep God firmly out. We are simply mis-describing ourselves to God if we don’t admit that’s how we are.
This is not to say that our petitionary prayer can’t mature, just as our desires and wants can mature. As we grow in life with God, our desires begin to sort themselves out, so that the more fundamental ones come to the forefront. A large part of our self-discipline as Christians – what we call ‘asceticism’ – consists in clearing away the miasma of superficial and distorted desires so that the really deep desires, the ones fully congruent with our nature, can actually emerge. The desire to be loved unconditionally, for example, as only God can love unconditionally. The desire that only God can fulfil.
Secondly, people say: doesn’t petitionary prayer make God into a behind-the-scenes wonder-worker, always at hand to pull us out of the mess we make of things? Actually, according to the Gospels, God is always at hand ready to pull us out of the mess we make of things! God is our Saviour. As the Psalmist says, he brings us up out of the pit, from the miry clay; he sets our feet upon a rock and makes our footsteps firm.
If we’re going to say that humanity has to be exclusively responsible for its own life, its own world, then we are saying that we don’t in point of fact need a Saviour, thank you. Petitionary prayer brings home to us that it is God who is man’s Saviour, that God not man (thank God) is Lord of human life.
God’s activity as Saviour is, however, subtle. It’s not a ham-fisted interference with the creation. Nonetheless, his saving activity is reality’s most vital dimension, what makes life ultimately trustworthy, a play that can have a happy ending, something that is not finally meaningless, not a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
We have there the promise of the Word of God himself. For ‘will not God vindicate his elect who cry to him day and night?’