When it comes to prayer, the Church consists of two kinds of people: those who hate to pray but do, and those who hate to pray and don’t.
Among those who hate to pray but do, there are those who do it and get answers and those who do it and don’t. The former never tire of explaining to the latter that God answers prayer in three ways: “Yes,” “No,” and “Wait.” “Yes” (they say) is God’s way of saying, “Funny you asked about that—I was just about to give it to you!” “No” is His way of saying, “Yeah, right! In your dreams, Pedro!” And “Wait” is His way of saying, “Yeah, right! In your dreams, Pedro!” over a long period of time.
Among those who hate to pray and don’t are those who feel guilty about it and those who think not praying is a great achievement. Orson Welles, for instance, not long before he went belly-up, said this about his prayer life: “God is an artist. I don’t want to bore God.” This from a guy who made an art out of muttering “Rosebud.” (By the way, kids, damning God with faint praise is not a smart thing to do right before your lifetime habit of eating enough for a small army does you in.)
Among those who pray and get answers are those who admit that they hate it and those who lie and say they love it. They lie because they don’t want the people in the churches they pastor to become people who don’t pray—something they would certainly be tempted to become if they ever found out that even the “good” pray-ers would rather be skiing…or using the thigh-master…or hanging upside down by their toes over a valley of razor blades.
As a new Christian, I hated to pray, knew it, and didn’t get answers. I eventually became a person who hated to pray and therefore quit. But I felt so guilty about it that I eventually started praying again. I even began getting answers—like this article, for instance. Just this morning I said, “Our Father, please make The Door print this.”
People who get answers have a name for themselves: “prayer warriors.” I’ve often wondered what people who never get answers should call themselves: prayer pacifists? pathetic pray-ers? Perhaps the initials of either (P.P.) would suffice.
Of course, from P.P. it’s not far to B.S.—which is all most Protestant public prayer (P.P.P.) amounts to. (I’ll get to Catholics soon, so hold your theses.) When Protestants aren’t using the occasion of public prayer to show off the progress they’ve been making with their Verbal Advantage tapes, they’re sending theological zingers to other Protestants in the room.
My uncle, a rabid Calvinist, and my dad, a rabid Arminian, used prayer this way. When we ate at my uncle’s house, my uncle would pray over dinner with sentiments like “Our Most Sovereign Heavenly Father, we thank Thee that Thou hast predestined us according to Thy will to enjoy these pork chops and this Del Monte canned corn.”
And when my uncle ate at our house, Dad would say prayers like “O God, from whom we can all freely and irrevocably fall away if we so choose, please bless this bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken to our bodies’ use.”
Protestants also use prayer to zing Catholics on those rare occasions when the two can stand to be in the same room. As a Catholic teacher at a school run by Reformed Presbyterians, I hear a lot of this: “Our great and gracious God whose mother no virgin named Mary art, we thank Thee that in Thy Word, the holy and inspired 66 books—and only 66 books—of the Bible, Thou hast revealed to us the inefficacy of sacraments and the superiority of Davy and Goliath over Mother Angelica.”
When not publicly praying themselves, Protestants mentally critique the public prayers of their brethren, tallying every redundant “Father-God,” “just,” “really,” and “traveling mercies,” and silently rejoicing when the verbally inept pray their way into cul-de-sacs and have to hem and haw their way out.
This, of course, is where praying in tongues comes in handy. If you can automatically switch into a language that sounds like backward masking or a dyslexic kid trying to read an eye chart, no occasion of public prayer need rattle your self-esteem. And if you can pray in tongues and sing like a boy going through puberty at the same time, you can win a yodeling trophy.
Of course, if tongues seems too weird, you can always hiss “Yesss, Jesusss” throughout everyone else’s prayers and come off spiritual (even though you’re really just annoying those who are trying to keep track of the redundant utterances of “Father-God,” “just,” “really,” and “traveling mercies”).
As a new believer, I hated prayer because it took forever even to come close to following all of the advice I’d ever gotten on the subject: “Martin Luther prayed for four hours a day” (a wonderful reason for becoming Catholic); “Jesus sometimes prayed all night” (not that His actually being God helped or anything); “Make a list of everyone and everything you want to pray for” (which only amounts to a few million items, give or take the inhabitants of a famine-stricken continent or two); and, my favorite—from the Bible, no less—“Pray without ceasing.”
Now, “Pray without ceasing” can mean two things: “Pray continuously” (twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, even during burps, hiccups, and sneezes) or “Pray continually” (often and regularly). Some Christians assume that, since the Bible is full of other commands no one can keep, “Pray without ceasing” must mean “Pray continuously.” When they fail at this (as they do, for instance, whenever they nap through a sermon), they just shrug their shoulders and thank God they’re saved by grace and not works.
Sensible Christians, on the other hand, assume that Paul meant to pray continually. But that just puts them back at square one. How often, after all, is often? But at least they don’t try to pray while driving (i.e., drive with their eyes shut) the way those in the pray-continuously school do. They also don’t answer the phone with “Praise the Lord,” “Hallelujah,” or “I’m blessed,” the way some of my black church-going friends do, although there’s no better way to discourage a pollster or a representative of MCI.
Protestants hold Bible studies and Wednesday night prayer meetings. Both of these provide ample time—ample as in “Dolly Parton has an ample bosom”—for sitting hunched over in folding chairs with your head in your hands, listening to the verbally inept ask God to heal people from minor illnesses that they’d recover from anyway and terminal illnesses that God, in His mercy, has decided to use to usher His faithful into His presence instead of having them get run over by buses or eaten by cannibals.
Boys forced to sit through prayer meetings with their dads become really good at pressing on their closed eyelids to see fireworks. They also get good at sitting still enough, for long enough, to lull unsuspecting flies into the sort of complacency that makes them frog bait.
Catholics, on the other hand, have all of their public prayers pre-written for them by wizened European patriarchs who specialize in prayer-writing. This eliminates the need for improvising, a skill that, as jazz fans know, resides in great quantities only among geniuses. And while Protestantism has produced geniuses, mostly it has produced intellectual colossi of the likes of Benny Hinn, Frank Peretti, Bob Larson, and people who think “X-mas” was invented by secular humanists to “take Christ out of Christmas.”
Protestants know that Catholic prayers beat theirs up, down, and sideways, so they attack them as “meaningless repetition,” a damning phrase taken from the lips of Jesus himself. What Protestants fail to recognize about meaningless repetition is that repeating something doesn’t make it meaningless; not meaning something makes it meaningless. So while “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee” and “blessed is the fruit of thy womb” may be meaningless to some people, they certainly weren’t meaningless to Gabriel and Elizabeth when they said them to Mary the first time. By the same token, a Protestant mantra like “asking Jesus into your heart,” which no one in the Bible ever said, may be meaningless no matter how many people mean it.
But we Catholics have prayer problems of our own—like what to pray for. The Pope? He’s infallible already. The conversion of the heathen? Fat chance, what with evangelicals proselytizing South America so fervently it’ll soon look like Virginia Beach, and Mormons out-proselytizing even the evangelicals with those state-of-the-art, family-values commercials on TV—you know, the ones where really good-looking Aryan nuclear families with lots of disposable income fog the screens with their love for the polygamist Joseph Smith.
And though no papally correct Catholic likes to admit it, the rosary—a beaded necklace with Jesus and Mary on it that left-wing Catholic bumper-stickers say will bring world peace—gets boring, specially around the thirty-fifth “Hail Mary.” Gabriel and Elizabeth, after all, only had to say it once.
Where I live in Louisiana, you can actually watch a TV show called The Rosary. It comes on at 5:30 on Sunday mornings, right before wrestling. Each episode features a priest with all the effervescence of a pallbearer leading a TV studio full of old women in the saying of the beads—women who no doubt danced really mean Charlestons in their spring-chicken days but who now couldn’t cut a rug with a chainsaw. One can imagine the casting call: “Wanted—really tired grandmothers! Easy-to-memorize script!”
During the rosary, Catholics are supposed to meditate on the meaning of significant events in the life of Christ, but sooner or later—even in church—the mind drifts, becoming preoccupied with deep thoughts like “Have I shaved between my eyebrows recently?”
Still, Catholics do have one big edge when it comes to prayer: the ability to solicit the help of those who’ve already shed this mortal coil and now have nothing better to do but use their “being in the very presence of God” to intercede for us. Protestants call this “praying to saints,” but that’s just meaningless repetition. What we’re really doing is calling on the “cloud of witnesses,” referred to in Hebrews, to assist us. Like, if I can ask you to pray for me about my upcoming root canal, why can’t I ask St. Benildus? Because I can’t see him? Does Mike Warnke believe in his feet?
When Jesus’ disciples asked Him for a prayer, He gave them the Lord’s one. It’s so simple that most believers of whatever stripe know it by heart, although for many, I suppose, it too has become meaningless repetition…which is too bad because, when you think of it, nobody sounds stupid saying it, not even people with Southern Baptist accents. Even more impressive is the way Jesus tailored the prayer to ask for everything in ways that God could only say “Yes” to. It would be unthinkable for God to answer “No” or “Wait” to petitions like “Hallowed be Thy name,” “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and “Give us this day our daily bread” (although those who don’t believe in their feet might want to say, “Give us this day our Deal-a-Meal,” instead).
As with all aspects of Christianity, prayer is hard because it’s a mystery. Doing it is better than knowing how to do it, and doing it badly is better than not doing it at all. Besides, Jesus said to do it in our closets. Apply these same standards to your sex life, and you’ll see how otherworldly they are.
Of course, were folks to take the pray-in-your-closet command seriously, they’d have no reason to meet in church for Wednesday night prayer meetings, thereby freeing themselves up to experience new challenges—like finding less pious meanings for the term “hump day.”
Or maybe not. Surely any church worth its salt and light could accommodate the few who turn out on Wednesday nights in the closet space it already has just by pushing the choir robes aside. And if not, they could always pray for more closet space. The worst God could say is “No.”