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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Steps in Prayer

Steps in prayer
Be Precise

Make your prayers as specific and concrete as possible. We often want to be magnanimous to show God that we are bigger than our small-minded concerns, and we do not get around to asking for what we really want. We give hints and make vague references, but language is about being precise as possible. A young boy who wants a red sled for Christmas is not going to pray, “Lord, I want to enjoy the snow, but your will be done not mine.” What is that? It is more helpful for the boy to say, “Lord, I really want a bright red sled for Christmas, and also make me aware of the needs of others. Maybe I can share my sled with my friends.”

When I was directing a five-day retreat at Wernersville, Pennsylvania, in 2001 for Georgetown University students and staff, Jon, the retreat coordinator, asked what we wanted for snacks. One of the directors replied, “Please get some crackers. It would be nice to have some cheese and crackers.” Jon replied, “Please tell me precisely what you want, including the brand name. I want to buy what pleases you, and I don’t want to guess only to find out I did not read your mind correctly.” The director promptly requested Nabisco Whole Wheat Thins with Black Pepper seasoning. Jon bought her exactly what she had in mind. We have to tell God our needs and desires, explain our feelings, and make our requests as concrete and specific as possible. We must stop rationalizing our desires and being vague about our requests. We are free in prayer to let ourselves go. There are no limits, no boundaries, except the ones we impose upon ourselves. We can also remove them.

The Psalmists said what was in their hearts very well. They asked for precisely what they wanted, even though it was not the most-loving request they could have made. They began prayer something like this, “O, Lord, you are most loving and generous. You have always been there for me, and I know you will always remain steadfast. You have delivered me from my foes on countless occasions. I ask you to do it again. All loving God, slay those around me who threaten me. Vanquish my enemies from the face of the earth and I will return your loving kindness to you in heaps, for you are a merciful, loving God, slow to anger and abounding in goodness. Amen.” We turn to the Psalms because they speak the emotions we feel.

Of course, we see the comedy in this approach. It seems childish to speak of the intensity of our anger to God, but if we have those strong feelings, we need to speak them. Why not let them out safely to a God who cares for us – and our enemies. Many of us do not wish anyone physical harm or death, but those words might be the only way we know to express the intensity we feel. God wants to hear our anger. We need to express it because it is going to come out sideways if we repress it – and it is generally messier because we will hurt others who are innocent. It may seem childish, but God knows the intensity of a person’s anger even if the person does not wish anyone physical harm. God is simply asking us to be authentic.

Many people refrain from speaking like this to God because it sounds very selfish. We do not want to be materialistic, self-centered people; therefore, we rarely bring to prayer those things we would really like. We condition ourselves not to ask for temporal, secular world objects, but those objects might be just what we need to help us through a transition or a period of grief, to overcome depression, or to bring us to a time of empowerment and exploration. Material goods can also lead to spiritual “goods.”


In addition to being concrete, be immediate in your requests. Say to God, “I want it now.” God’s will is operative in the present. What God wishes for you right now is different from what God wished for you two years ago; you are a changed person and you will change in another two years. Make your needs known now. At the same time, be wary of the immediate when dealing with God’s will. It takes discernment to become comfortable and familiar with the ways God speaks to us. We can trust that we are encountering God if our motives are moving in the direction of being loving and other-centered.

Beg for a Grace

Pray for a specific grace every time you begin prayer. The grace can be as simple as, “Lord, give me the grace to know that you see me and hear me,” or “God, I just want to be in your presence.” Having something specific to ask in prayer will help guide you. At the end of the prayer, you do need to ask, “God, did you give me the grace I asked for? If yes, thank you. If no, then, why not? Please give me the grace because I need and want it.” It is strong language for some, but it is better to be direct. God knows that you may stumble over your words, but God is big enough to deal with human limitations. In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius asks the retreatants to beg for God’s grace, assuring us that we need not be timid in prayer. 

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