For the Asking

It's a confession that I never thought I'd make. I don't really like prayer, not if it means asking for stuff. I'm fine with prayer as praise and thanksgiving: the universe is a beautiful, incredible place and it is a wonder that we are here to be conscious of it and marvel at its glories. I can't imagine not being thankful for being alive--at least, not in the sense of thinking I somehow deserve to be alive, rather than thinking that life is an unlooked for gift. And I'm comfortable with prayer as confession, perhaps too comfortable. It is easy for me to detail my failings, all the things I have done and, even more so, left undone, beginning with worshiping God as I should, heart, mind and soul. But to take all of this and ask for something, for example, that our cat should live, just seems selfish and empty, as if I somehow didn't get the point of how much I already have to be thankful for or how badly I have failed to live up to even my own ideals, never mind God's.

Sally Kempton has this to say about petitionary prayer (Yoga Journal, November 2008): "We often feel guilty about praying for favors, especially mundane ones like a new job. We shouldn't.... Petitionary prayer, in some profound way, affirms the dignity of human needs and desires, which is why ancient cultures--particularly the Vedic culture of India--always interspersed their hymns of praise with requests for food, protection, and prosperity." Christians have a similar prayer: "Give us this day our daily bread." But I'm still not convinced.

I can pray for "our daily bread" but this (arguably) is simply for the support to stay alive. It seems wholly different to pray not to get stuck in traffic or for a good practice today or for enough money to buy a new shirt just because I want one. None of these things are necessities nor will my life be significantly poorer if I don't get them. So perhaps I should pray only for the big things: not to die in a car accident; not to lose my job in the present financial crisis; not to lose my health and so be unable to practice at all. It's interesting all of these big prayers are in the negative: I'm praying for my life to continue as it is, for there to be no big changes.

What if I were to pray for something more positive: a promotion (too much on my mind these days as I'm struggling to get my feet in my new research), a best-selling book, enough money not just for clothes but regular trips to Europe for family and work? Even thinking of these changes is hard for me. Our world is in a terrible state: children dying of hunger, terrorists training to kill themselves and as many innocent bystanders as they possibly can, corporations working to maximize their profits at the expense of both their workers and the environment, gangs fighting each other for turf only blocks from where I live, the ice melting in Greenland, children being abused and murdered. That I only know about most of these things third or fourth hand is already an enormous blessing. How dare I ask for more than I have already been given?

My first thought is that it would be even more ungrateful to somehow refuse the life that I have now, but then, that is exactly what St. Francis and his followers did. As Jesus told the rich young man, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21). If this is the ideal, what business do I have asking for anything more than my daily bread? I am intrigued by the little I have heard about the "prosperity Gospel." How do the preachers get around this episode in Matthew? Would they go so far as to agree with Pope John XXII who, in his condemnation of the Franciscan Spirituals in 1323, declared that it was heretical to assert that "Our Redeemer and Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles did not possess (habuisse) anything individually, nor even in common" (Quum inter nonnullos)? In other words, that it was heretical to insist that to follow Jesus perfectly, one should give all one's possessions to the poor?

I feel this tug every time I answer the phone and get one of those calls on the other end, asking yet again for more help. The veterans, the policemen's lodge, the Democratic party, the campaign against breast cancer: I really can't say yes to all of them, can I? I already give to our church, to our local food kitchen, to my undergraduate university, to MoveOn.org, to Heifer International. Should I give to the extent that I have no money for luxuries? I'm far from that yet, being the selfish person that I am. I still have enough money for foils and fencing lessons, after all. Nevertheless, until I do give in such a way that I actually suffer lack, not just feel the pinch of a budget, I am convinced I have no business praying for my circumstances to improve.

I'm sure there's a flaw in this logic. As Julia Cameron would put it, "God has lots of money. God has lots of ideas." Believing that this is as good as it gets--as good as it can get--is denying God's generosity, not to mention putting limits on what God can achieve. It is we, not God, who insist on "living within our means", "not asking for too much", refusing to dream. As a certain presidential candidate has recently put it, "Yes we can." But what can we do? Can we really end poverty? Hatred? Greed? Ambition at the cost of others? How much of what we feel as limitations to our vision of what the world might be is the consequence of our own human nature (vices and virtues all) and how much just reality, the reality of scarcity, the reality of death?

My cat is dying as I write this. The sweet smell that I experienced last week as a result of my own illness is now everywhere in our apartment. We could kill him now ("put him to sleep"), but we've resisted that. He doesn't seem to be in pain now, just very, very weak. He moves every so often from under the bed to under a chair. And he will still drink a little water from time to time. But he is going to die. And this is just a cat. Where in the economy of prayer do prayers for life fit in? He's lived well; we've loved him and will have many memories of him. But nothing we can do now will make him live any longer than his body and God allow. I want a miracle. I want my cat to recover and live. I'm angry that I can't in conscience pray for this because the world just doesn't work that way.

Why not? Why can't we get what we pray for, if God is so generous and all?

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