instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, August 08, 2013

One and a half out of five ain't bad

In writing about the Lord's Prayer, St. Thomas says, "A prayer must be confident, ordered, suitable, devout and humble." I've got my work cut out for me.

The confidence with which I pray, for example, has changed over time. Not just the daily waxing and waning due to distractions, but the very way I would characterize my confidence in prayer can (through oversimplification) be put into four stages.

The first stage I'll call unreflective confidence. As a child, I prayed in the way and with the words I was taught, and God did whatever it was He did, and that was about that. Prayer, like genuflecting, was just something I did, and I figured God would make the best of it.

Frankly, I stayed in this stage well past childhood. But as time went on, and the tension grew between the promises of Jesus -- "Ask, and it shall be given," etc. -- and the visible consequences of my prayers, I began to pray with more of a dogmatic confidence. Like Mark's Galilean leper, I held firm to the belief that, if God wished, He could give me what I asked Him for.

That's a pretty weak sort of thing to be called "confidence," though. It's more of a consequence of the doctrines of Divine omnipotence and omniscience. Looking back, my prayers were pretty weak, too. "If You wish it" sounds pious enough, but it's not piety when it's shorthand for, "If You wish it, which maybe You don't, in which case there's no point in pressing You too hard on this, and if You do wish it, then You'll do it anyway, I suppose, so... yeah, anyway, just a suggestion, but of course it's Your call."

I knew all along that I was terrible at intercessory prayer (SPOILER ALERT: I'm still terrible). I could occasionally reach the level of the Galilean leper, which works fine if God answers, "I do will it," after the first request. But anything at all resembling the persistent widow? No.

Then I started noticing how many saints (including authors of Scripture) listed confidence as a necessary condition for our prayer. And I thought, "I have full and complete confidence in God. I don't have confidence in me." And I entered a third stage; for lack of a better term, call it divided confidence. It also seems pious enough, and there's plenty in the great spiritual works of the Church (including Scripture) that tells us to trust in God, not in ourselves.

For me, though, I think the appeal to a divided confidence was more of an excuse than a humbling of self. It explained a lot about my prayer life -- well, duh, of course a barren tree won't bear figs -- but I didn't need an explanation, I needed an improvement. And I came to see that praying without confidence in myself really amounted to praying without confidence in God, without the confidence that He will come to the aid of my weakness -- not, granted, with the promptness of Jesus healing the leper, but then a) God doesn't make that promise, and b) we aren't told how long the leper prayed to God before His Son passed by.

Which brings me to the fourth stage, which I shall grandly call theological confidence, since it's a confidence that aims at being grounded in the full and living faith, hope, and love of a fallible, adopted child of the Father, redeemed by the Blood of the Son and sustained by the intercession of the Holy Spirit. I say "aims at" because I'm still working on making such confidence habitual, and old habits of thought die hard.