The Praying Game
Seventeenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Mark Edney finds insight into the Our Father from the writing of Péguy.
‘I am their father, says God. Our father who art in heaven. My son told them all about my being their father. […] That’s how they seem to me now. That’s how I see them. That’s how I’m forced to see them.’
Thus speaks God the Father in Charles Péguy’s The Mystery of the Holy Innocents. Few poets have ever been bolder in making God speak. But for Péguy it is precisely because in Christ God spoke human words that we can be so bold in our words to God. The Father recalls of the Son: ‘He spoke like them, he spoke with them, he spoke as one of them’. So now when the Father hears us, he hears the Son. Never more so than when we say the Our Father. With these words Jesus taught us how to make God hear us as his children.
Péguy is being poetic. He scripts God the Father as pretending to be perplexed by all that has come to pass through the sending of the Son. He writes as if the Father and Son were rivals, the one representing justice and the other representing mercy. Their rivalry plays out on the field of history and it’s human salvation that is the prize to be won or lost. The Father knows all along, of course, that in sending the Son he has stacked the decks against himself, shot an own goal against the side of a strict justice. Never more so than when the Son taught his disciples how to pray. ‘When you pray, say…’
For Péguy, the Our Father is not only our daily prayer but the victory of a father’s mercy over a judge’s justice. Péguy imagines judgement in the light of Jesus’ words concerning the Kingdom of Heaven suffering violence and with men of violence taking it by force (Matthew 11:12). Heaven will be stormed by a vast flotilla of ships, carrying all of humanity with Christ at its head. Their weapon will be a ceaseless chorus of the words of the Our Father. And it will prove victorious. ‘How’, God the Father says, ‘would you expect me to defend myself? My son has revealed all.’
Péguy is being poetic and not pious. Other than poetically, it seems impious to think of God being under attack, vulnerable and defenceless to our words. And yet this does seem akin to how Jesus wants us to think of prayer. What does he compare it to in today’s Gospel? A man being importuned by a friend at midnight and a son expecting something from his father. In both cases it is obvious that the petitioners will get what they want. In the first, by virtue of persistence. In the second, by virtue of presumption.
Our prayer may rarely be poetic but it should never be too pious. It should be bold, persistent and even presumptuous. The friend wants three loaves and the boy wants fish. And in the Our Father we want our daily bread and a host of other things. Praying is like nagging your neighbour when you want to borrow something or like a child with greedy eyes in a tuck shop. It’s pleading against all objections. It’s not caring who or what you happen to be disturbing. It’s asking for what you need.
All prayer is asking. Children are usually transparent in expressing what they want to their parents. Calling God ‘Father’ means not being afraid to tell God what we need. Only pious adults get all anxious about whether when praying they are trying instead to manipulate, placate, bargain with or flatter their God. Abraham, in today’s first reading from Genesis, shows no such anxiety in boldly pleading for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In Péguy’s writing, like in Jesus’s stories, God appears defenceless against a child’s entreaty. It’s almost as if God doesn’t have a choice, as if he’s forced to give what we ask for in prayer. Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and it shall be opened.
Of course it’s not really like that… God does not need us to tell him what we need. God cannot be forced to give us what we want. But any father can play a game with his children, making it seem as if he needs to be told, to have everything explained to him; as if he needs to be convinced or persuaded to do something for their good. A child pulls the heartstrings, but only when his father lets him. He lets him because a father already knows how to give good gifts. The Father who gave us his Son. The Son who gave us the Our Father.
Many people say that they have a hard time praying. Perhaps it’s because they take it too seriously or too piously. Of course the stakes are serious in the game of salvation. But we can be bold in the praying game since the Son himself taught us to how to play and win. If Péguy is right, the Father was always playing to lose anyway.