Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).
As a teen in the 70s, many times I heard these lyrics issue from my tinny clock radio: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz…” Everyone who hears it still laughs. Whatever our differences, we agree that prayer doesn’t work that way.
But we laugh too at ourselves. The verse exposes an unexamined assumption. We spend so much time and energy sniffing out the best quality products at the lowest prices, we expect good customer service from God.
So we might add another verse: “Oh, Lord, won’t you go earn an MBA…” We wish God would more efficiently reduce costs and increase benefits. Disappointed, we reject religion or participate nominally to appease a pious spouse. Or we demote God to Manager of Heaven – an important job, but not when dealing with rough-and-tumble decisions on the ground like who to lay off or how to keep investors happy.
Our consumerist approach assumes we know what we want. We don’t. Taking cues from people we consider a little better than us, we decide that what they’ve got, we want. We spend enormous energy and time on things we think we want, but don’t. Often we don’t really know what to pray for.
If we break free and pray for the sick neighbor or the constipated Congress, we step around the consumerism problem and indeed move in a healthy direction. Then we face another conundrum: Do we really believe God does things? Do we want to believe God does things? Wouldn’t we rather believe that the grand causal nexus scientists explore and technicians control crowds out God and wishful thinking? That appeals to our sense of order and predictability. It reduces the risk of disappointment when prayers go unanswered.
If the world revolves around us, we can let go of religion and laugh at all the prayers, the silly and the serious. But if science teaches nothing else, it demonstrates that we do not occupy the center of the universe.
At his poetic and mystical best, Paul wrote,
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
Knowing better than us what we want, the Spirit prays. God prays. God is not some clueless sales clerk who needs to be told three times what we’re looking for. When we offer up to God what we want, we join the Trinity’s conversation in progress. When we offer up our wish for healing and peace, we join a prayer already underway. God invites us to the conversation and actually lets us make a difference. We need only come as our true selves, humble, laying aside all frivolous wishes, ready to learn what we want.
The Merton Prayer
Science, Mysticism, and the Power of Unknowing
Ignatius Dreams: A Young Man Learns Discernment and Teaches the World