By Michelle Francl-Donnay
I cry aloud to God, cry to God to hear me. On the day of my distress I seek the Lord; by night my hands are raised unceasingly; I refuse to be consoled. – Ps. 77:2-3
I’m in the midst of a project that has gone viral. Last week I asked a number of colleagues for photos to illustrate an essay I wrote. They asked their friends, who in turn invited yet more people to help out. Now my inboxes – e-mail and postal – are brimming with several hundred photographs, inquiries and release forms that must be downloaded, scanned, answered, filed, printed and collated.
As a result I’ve dashed off more than a hundred notes of thanks, resisting the temptation to resort to a blanket e-mail of gratitude. Tucked into this delightfully helpful deluge were two e-mails from friends, seriously seeking my help in ways far less tangible. Each ended with “Prayers, please.” My response flew back, “Of course, I will.”
In assuring each of my friends that I would pray for them, I wasn’t offering to make some generic noise in the direction of God’s ear and move on. I meant that I was willing to wrestle with God on their behalf, to cry aloud to God that He might hear them. To ask God for what they need, specifically and repeatedly.
Walter Brueggemann, in his short book “Praying the Psalms,” notes that we often strive for a “cool, detached serenity” in prayer. We want to approach God gracefully and well collected.
Yet the prayers and songs that are the psalms, Brueggemann points out, are uncomfortably concrete. The psalmists do not shy away from asking God for exactly what they desire, couching their petitions in everyday words and images. Wheat and water. Bees and mud.
Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner in “The Need and the Blessing of Prayer” similarly warns against an overly resolute detachment in prayer. It is tempting, he says, to try to limit our prayer to the interior, to dispassionate requests for the “noble goods of the soul.” Rahner advises us to look instead at Christ praying, gasping out His prayers that the cup might pass Him by. He is not afraid to ask directly. He is sure He is heard. And yet simultaneously He offers His unconditional submission to what God wills.
These are not diffident “whatever you wish” prayers, these are fierce prayers that transfigure “I beg You” into “I offer all that I am for You.” The mystery of this sort of prayer – our determination to express our desires to God, our willingness to accede to God’s desires for us – is ultimately the mystery of Christ, both true God and true man.
So I reach for the Psalter, for the Liturgy of the Hours, to enfold my friends’ prayers in these ancient songs from one end of the day to the other. I press my ongoing round of psalms into this service, not because I’m afraid I will forget to pray otherwise, but because the psalms themselves sing candidly and fiercely of our needs in this world as much as the next. They speak of a world that is messy and uncertain, that seeks “the ear of God’s mercy.”
Most of all I pray the psalms for my friends and their needs because these are the words that Jesus prayed in his most difficult hours. Jesus trusted He was heard in these words. I trust, too, that nothing in God’s inbox, however overflowing, goes unheard, or is answered with anything less than God’s full and loving attention.
Beg so that your continuing prayer of petition appears to be a pledge of your faith in the light of God in the darkness of the world, for your hope for life in this constant dying, for your loyalty of love that loves without reward. – Father Karl Rahner, S.J., “The Prayer of Need”
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.