Praying on Empty
When I was a kid you might still run into a few old-timers who would shout into the telephone to make themselves heard, especially when calling long distance. A lot of people pray the same way. Not that they necessarily shout, although some do that. But their prayers are often spoken as if they needed to travel a great distance.
"We do not know how to pray as we ought," the Apostle Paul said. Jesus held the same view. He criticized those who heaped up empty phrases in prayer, thinking they would be heard for their many words. He sometimes shocked the religious folk of his day by addressing God in a manner they considered overly familiar. He told people that God knew what they needed before they asked, so there was no point in belaboring things. He offered as an example the Lord's Prayer, a model of brevity. There are indications he did not feel much need to pray at all but did so only for the benefit of onlookers.
I confess that I have long regarded prayer as something of a chore. There came a point in my spiritual life when praying in words seemed like hurling rocks in a still pond, so I more or less stopped. I was a bit apprehensive at first, feeling that I might be slacking off. But eventually I came to feel that it was far better to listen, to allow myself to sink into the silence of God.
I no longer feel much need for God to set my affairs straight; if I do, then it's usually the result of fear. Of course, sometimes we do worry, especially when loved ones are involved. At such times, prayer can be a comfort, but we do well to remind ourselves that our needs are already taken care of. "Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish," Marcus Aurelius said, "but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life." Apart from thanksgiving, there is really only one prayer, and that is the one Jesus uttered as he was about to be taken away to be killed: "Thy will be done."
Increasingly, I have the sense that my whole life is God's prayer. The issue for me is not whether God answers prayer, but do I? I don't know if Henri Matisse was a conventionally religious man, but he had this same sense. "The essential thing," he said, "is to work in a state that approaches prayer." Yes, that's it exactly. For a writer, it begins with listening -- not necessarily listening to your muse but just listening. You sit in your study early in the morning and listen to the insects humming outside your window, to the wind whispering in the trees, to the sound of cars in the distance, to your own breathing. You awaken from your stupor and feel yourself to be alive. You approach your work like a priest approaching the altar. You must not be afraid. You must wield your pen as boldly a surgeon wielding a scalpel. A surgeon knows he holds someone's life in his hands -- and so do you, only in this case that someone's life is your own.
Matt. 6:7 ff