Why bother praying?

I, for one, was delighted that the Archbishops had the vision for a Novena of Prayer for the evangelisation of the nation last month. The material produced for use in parishes provided an insight into contemporary approaches to the prayer of intercession. There were very few prayers that could be described as simple intercession: an act of prayer by one person on behalf of another in trust and faith that God will respond to the petition. Most of the prayers were self-reflective prayers asking God to help the person or persons praying to be more sensitive and courageous witnesses and agents of evangelism.

I came across an article in the Church Times by Bishop John Saxbee – whose previous books include Liberal Evangelism – which was an assessment of the initiative. His position is fairly typical: ‘the Enlightenment can’t be undone’; ‘the modern world-view does not leave much room for God to respond to prayer’; ‘prayer is a good thing because it brings understanding and heightened awareness of issues and possibilities about situations when a person prays about them.’

To my mind this is old hat and should be thrown out. I often think about a conversation I had forty years ago with a nun at Fairacres. I was complaining that I had been praying for a friend who was very ill with cancer and that God didn’t seem to be answering the prayer as my friend’s illness still progressed. The sister replied very directly, ‘who do you think you are – God?’ ‘Prayer’, as Dr Saxbee wrote, ‘is a theological question’. In the end, what the person praying believes about God will shape that person’s prayer. If God is only a God of ‘the gaps’ then quite a lot of prayer will be a ‘filling’ process: something that happens in the small places where human understanding and knowledge has not yet succeeded in removing the unknown.

Our understanding of prayer will also be determined by what we understand by being human. If we believe that humanity by reason can shape and order the world, and if we believe that ‘spirituality’ is a useful complement to the process of reason, then intercession in an orthodox sense is useless: another example of how some people seem know everything better than Jesus. There is not enough space here to set about a demolition of such a position; but the physical sciences and the study of consciousness, as well as new horizons in philosophy, have left the ‘liberals’ of the 1970s stranded on their own opinions.

Intercession is a work to which God calls us. Jesus prayed for St Peter to be strengthened; Peter prayed for the churches in his care to be faithful; and in their prayer both were opening up the pastoral relationship to the Father: for only the Father knows the times and seasons and, as the Lord’s Prayer recognises, is both the provider of bread, and the deliverer from evil. The work of prayer is a recognition that through the gift of the Holy Spirit God calls us into partnership with Him; it is a recognition of his trust in us that we should work with Him in bearing others’ burdens. Prayer is the work of the Spirit, who continually draws us into the mystery of His work. The whole Christian life is a life for others, and in the Divine economy to spend ourselves in prayer for others is the productive expression of faith that can ‘move mountains.’

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House