Value, and necessity, of petitionary prayer

The Human Condition:

By Msgr. Michael Heintz

In the tenth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a blind man called Bartimaeus who sat begging at the roadside. Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” An odd question given the fact that, being the Eternal Son of God, Jesus knew quite well both what Bartimaeus wanted and needed. There is clearly something significant in Jesus’ question.

We are apt to think of petitionary prayer — telling God what we want or think we need  — as perhaps the lowest form of prayer. In fact, we probably think that such prayer is a far cry from the ecstasy of a St. Teresa of Avila or the mystical union achieved in contemplation by a St. John of the Cross. However, it is imperative to realize that petitionary prayer is in fact the most basic — and, as the most basic, an utterly necessary — form of prayer.

First and foremost, petitionary prayer expresses most clearly the real state of things. That is, it is in petitionary prayer that our status as creatures is most evident. Implicit in every act of petition from God is the fact that we are creatures, He is the Creator. Our existence and well-being depend entirely on the Lord. And when we approach the Lord in petitionary prayer (whether we are thinking of it this way or not), we are expressing that relationship of dependence which of necessity presupposes an act of utter humility on our part: when we ask, there is an implicit admission that we cannot achieve things on our own. Recall that the Original Sin has often been depicted in the tradition as the desire to be god unto ourselves, to be “freed” from the constraints of creaturehood and by some machination of our own devising to obtain what we ascertain to be good. St. Irenaeus, 220 AD, apparently following a strand of ancient Jewish interpretation, understood Adam and Eve in the garden as children who would, when old enough (that is, in God’s time), be able to eat even of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. Their unwillingness to wait, their desire to cast aside their condition as creatures and, further, creatures who are in the process of becoming, stilted their genuine growth. How often in our life of prayer have we found ourselves frustrated because God wasn’t doing things on our time? How often have we not only expected a certain answer to our prayer, but even more, expected such an answer on our terms and on our schedule? We are, not infrequently to our chagrin, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, after all.

In answer to the objection that God’s foreknowledge (that since all time is present to God, He knows what we need and what we will ask for) makes prayer unnecessary. Origen, writing around the year 233 AD, observed that God’s foreknowledge does not take away or diminish our human freedom. God’s sovereignty and providence are such that He can actually incorporate our free choices (even the sinful ones; our evil will cannot foil His will) into His overarching plan of salvation. Two things follow: (a) God does, in fact, know what will be; and (b) this does not, however, mean that we are somehow “programmed” to choose any particular end. To use a somewhat crass analogy, we are capable of knowing, for example, that the Kansas City Royals are not going to win the World Series this year. We make such a claim on the basis of knowing them and their record; if we, whose knowledge is imperfect can, on the basis of what little we do know, come to such a conclusion, then God, whose knowledge is perfect, certainly can know; further, God, not being subject to time (time itself being a creation), all of human history (what to us is past, present, or future) is eternally present to God. But this does not mean that God’s knowing somehow eliminates or removes our freedom. Going back to our example, we have little or no control over what the Royals will do this season (we do not manipulate their pitching or hitting); we simply know them well enough to know they won’t be playing in October.

St. Augustine, 430 AD, writing a lengthy reply to a noblewoman named Proba who had inquired about prayer, suggests that the articulation of our needs, while by no means necessary to God or to His response to such prayer (He, in fact, knows our needs before we voice them), actually prepares us to receive what He will grant us. So rather than being unsophisticated or unnecessary, our prayer, our requests to God, both reflect our humble status as creatures before their beneficent Creator and prepare us to accept and receive His will in utter trust and confidence. This notion is picked up and developed later by St. Thomas Aquinas. He suggests that prayer is not directed to change God’s will, but rather we express our desires to God in order to co-operate with Him in bringing about certain effects which He has ordained for our good (e.g., if I want it to rain on my garden and my neighbor wants sunshine to play golf, can we imagine God is so fickle or capricious that one of us have a better chance to “woo” God to our desires?). Thomas’ point has been summarized simply in a modern aphorism: prayer does not change God; prayer changes people and people change things. Thomas steers a middle ground between viewing prayer as then simply unnecessary (because God’s will is eternal) or as our attempts to curry favor and somehow manipulate God’s will.

Jesus’ inquiry of Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” is, in a real sense, what He asks of us each day. And we do ourselves no service to suppose that our prayer must be somehow more sophisticated than mere petition. Of course, petition is not (nor should it be) our only form of prayer. But far be it from us to assume we are somehow above it.

Msgr. Michael Heintz is on the faculty at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Posted on June 22, 2016, to: