What does it mean to pray beyond
simply asking God for favors?
 We can Learn much simply
from the initial words of the Our Father:

by Peter J. Riga


ALL MY LIFE I have tried to specify the heart of what prayer is. I've read countless books and spiritual authors and I have not been satisfied in my own heart and mind. I have prayed often, morning, noon, and night, and yet my question remains: what is the core of prayer to God?

I know all the elements of prayer: personal, liturgical, communal, penitential, praise, laudatory, petition, thanksgiving, worship, awe, humility, openness, the Spirit, silence and nonverbal gratitude, and much more. But the question still remains: what does it mean to pray? Perhaps there really is no answer to this question since our prayer is so individual, so personal, and intimate that it is impossible to really give a universal answer to what prayer is except that it is vital for the spiritual life. So vital in fact that without it, there is no real relationship with God. Perhaps we can learn from Jesus who, when asked by the disciples how to pray, gave us the immortal "Our Father" with its themes of worship and petition.

 "Our Father" is, of course, the object of our prayer: a complete surrender to the one to whom we pray, one who is the intimate Father. That gives us confidence, trust, and hope that the one to whom we pray is not an impersonal Almighty far from us, but one who loves us, in whom we can have full confidence and to whom we can give our full surrender in love. We can surrender to God because we are embraced and never alone. We are safe in our absolute surrender. This objective of prayer is unique in Christianity as Father, not as absolute potentate or Almighty whatever. His love is his mercy, and his mercy is his love, because that is who God is in his very being and substance. That is why we can say that God is unconditionallove because he is love; therefore he is Father in an intimate sense.

 Praying to "our Father" makes our prayer comforting and full of assurance that we are loved, never abandoned; God is one with us in all that we do and are. We are never alone even if it seems so; we are in communion with him; we need only to surrender ourselves to him at any time, in any place, for any reason. Even when we abandon him, he never abandons us. How could he if he is love? This absolute setting of our prayer is that it is based on an intimate relationship and never one of fear. We are respectful, we are full of worship, but we worship God when we love God, love our neighbor, love ourselves. When we love, we worship that which makes Christianity absolutely unique in the history of religion: prayer and worship are intimately and absolutely related to love and are one and the same thing. Without love there can be no worship, no prayer in the Christian dispensation, no relationship, no communion, no unity, no nothing.

All this I accept, and I give profound thanks for such an amazing gift, such an amazing grace, one that is truly unutterable. One can only profoundly give thanks for this mystery of love which embraces us at every moment of our existence because it is beyond all our words. It is mystery which we may humbly accept as grace and gift. We continue to exist only because we are loved and in love we are sustained and made whole. Words escape us because we enter a dimension without words so that in silence God speaks to us loudly. From eternity to eternity he is, and we are given the grace to be one with him.

This paradox is where we must also experience this profound mystery of God's presence. God is beyond all worlds, beyond all dogmas (which remain true because he has uttered them) but in prayer we fall into an abyss and into a dimension where words fail us and only silence surrounds us. I have so often tried to capture this silence, this other dimension of who God is and how in prayer I relate to him, but I cannot because it is beyond words. There are moments when we experience this dimension of the joy of the absolute but only for a moment from which we must return to the painful realization that we are still on earth with all of its pain and disappointment and darkness. "We see only through a glass darkly."

Before someone accuses me of false mysticism (even though that term is often used in the Christian tradition) let me say that I have experienced this dimension in the strangest circumstances and if they seem strange to anyone reading this, it is because we are dealing with a dimension which is beyond human words, human concepts, beyond the earthly domain in which alone we understand but do not, cannot, see. We must speak in paradoxes which reveal to us contradictions and this analogy of transcendence is about the closest we have to understanding.

More dimensional is the experience of beauty which is the unspeakable without words, and which can be accepted and entered into only in silence. I have been to concerts and heard a particularly beautiful rendition that has caused me to simply be in ecstasy (and tears) for a few seconds where everything else ceases to exist. On occasions like this, we become one with the beauty rendered, whether by an oboe, or by the reading of a poet, that touches us to the quick. Even the pure smile of a baby, the beauty of a sunset, the exchange of love between a couple which needs no words-all these experiences last but a few moments only to bring us back to the worldly reality of words and noise, reminding us that we have once again reentered the human dimension of temporality, temptation, and mortality.

All things are mortal because they have an end, while the beauty that I have described is simply eternal beauty which can only increase and become more intense. But this experience here below lasts but a few moments, enough to note the radical difference, the painful separation back to earth, not even knowing whether we will ever enter into that beauty again. And its absence is pain filled. We may even call this grace because it seems to come from some unknown source who permits us to

Peter Riga is a practicing attorney
and a regular contributor to Emmanuel.


Ũҡ : EMMANUAL, Jan./Feb. 2007, p. 49-51.

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