As with many aspects of Christianity, there is a basic paradox in Christian prayer life. On the one hand, God is defined as unknowable, “too big to grasp,” and therefore an inaccessible “other.” On the other hand, Jesus tells us God even cares about every sparrow, and relates in a parable the example of a woman who, seeking justice, harasses a judge until he finally grants her what she wishes out of sheer weariness of enduring her entreaties, suggesting that God is approachable on the same basis.
The people of Old Testament times understood that to see God would mean death. Moses was told by God that his name was “I am who I am,” because it was not possible for humans to know the essence of God. We must therefore be content simply with knowing the fact of his being.
It is with this in mind that Isaiah describes his terror when he encounters God in all his majesty (see Isaiah 6). Having one’s sinful self fully exposed in the bright light of the all-powerful and all-holy God is not a comforting experience. Isaiah figures he is done for.
This is why we must address some prior considerations before a constructive relationship with God can happen. Consider some of the differences between you and God.
- God is much bigger than you. We know the universe is immense, even as we don’t know how immense, since we have not (yet) found boundaries for it, and indeed, there may not be any. Whoever created and maintains this immensity is clearly larger than anyone can even imagine.
- God is much wider than you. The immensity includes an ability to also be micro beyond our grasp, to be ubiquitous whereas we are limited to one place at a time, to be exponentially multi-tasked and multi-dimensional.
- God is much smarter than you. The intelligence implicit in the activities of God means that we are unable to even access where it begins. As a lizard can perceive our presence and being, but cannot discuss nuclear physics with us, so we can perceive God, but not understand him.
- God is much more absolute than you. Whereas we live in a world of hypotheses, doubts and assumptions, God is clear on the facts, on real justice and real history. There are no gray areas for the Almighty.
- God is much better than you, to the point where your morality stinks like old garbage in the nose of God and your sin-laden existence cannot be covered up. As Isaiah realizes, we are an unclean people.
- God is much more loving than you. It is this good fortune that will save you, literally and through no effort or charm on your part. God’s patience and forgiveness, based on his infinite love, not on your desire to love him, is what makes conversation even possible.
We are informed that we are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), and it is this special relationship which gives our species both its responsibility and privileges. But an image is not the same as the real thing. You may keep a photo of your wife or kids in your wallet or on your desk. But it isn’t at all the same as having that person present. In our case, the image is also badly tattered and tarnished. Nevertheless, it is still the image, and it is at that point both our stewardship and priesthood begins.
Meanwhile, back at Isaiah 6, God first hears Isaiah’s comprehensive confession of sin, and sacramentally forgives him. Reviewing my sinfulness in detail is not an enjoyable experience. It is tempting to skip this step in connecting to God. Unfortunately, failure to acknowledge my sinful nature and its consequences dooms any effort to have a meaningful relationship with God. Sin is an obstacle and distortion. Attempting to gloss over the glaring open wound of sinfulness is impossible. Just as a major wrong done to another will prevent a normal relationship with that person until the injustice is dealt with, so any effort to relate to God as if my sin did not happen blocks honest communication, the only communication possible with the God who is already fully aware of truth. This is why self-examination is so important in spiritual formation. Those who would live the year by skipping Advent and Lent and going straight to Christmas and Easter are stunted in their spiritual growth. Those who would go straight to Sunday’s Eucharistic joy without first admitting, reviewing and confessing their sin will continue to carry the “intolerable burden” (to use the Prayerbook’s term) and will fail to find the loving God and the joy of his presence.
God does care about every sparrow. Some mistakenly assume that he is therefore indifferent to righteousness, and that his love makes him weak. But that is a macho human concept, seeing love as a sign of weakness and sentimentality. God’s love, which uses immense strength in sacrificial effort on behalf of others, is quite a different matter. It is good to have the concept straight before trying to access God. It begins with perceiving his absolute holiness, justice and power. The contrast with my lack of all of that means I cannot help but begin by kenosis, and by an honest effort to acknowledge my sin and its consequences. Isaiah is still the role model for this, several millennia later.
Ask and you will receive, says Jesus. Forgiveness, once requested, will be received. The obstacle of sin is removed. Access to God in prayer can begin. Note that this is a repetitive cycle. Just because you ate and breathed last week does not mean it is unnecessary this week. Sin, alas, is not a curable disease, only a manageable one. Not until its consequence of death is encountered and conquered can it be eliminated. Understanding and confessing my sin and receiving God’s patient forgiveness is therefore a continuing process in this life.
But so is the process of prayer itself. This is nothing less than accessing union with God. He marks me indelibly in baptism, incorporates me in Communion, heals me with oil. Building on that, I offer my life to him, in words, actions, thoughts, sighs and wishes. My very breathe is “pneuma,” spirit (the words are connected in Greek). It is that close, and that frequent.
So let’s get real. This means I offer a lot of inadequate, indeed unworthy, prayer. The most basic prayer, without which all other prayer is deviation, is “thy will be done.” Sometimes, that prayer can be achieved without conscious effort. More often, it is thwarted, by the conscious force of my will being done apart from God’s. Ideally, my very breath is in harmony with the will of the Spirit. We struggle and strive, but the glory moments of theosis are not common in this life. But remember we learned to walk, run and speak by a process of repeated falls and mistakes. Life is a pilgrimage and the important thing is to keep going toward the goal, knowing that God responds like the loving parent he is, by helping, encouraging, even challenging us in our walk. In that interaction lies the essence of prayer.
There are many who much prefer another way. They live as practical atheists most of the time, as if there were no God of weekdays, worklife and worldly reward. They allot a few minutes every day, or at least every week, to go apart from their life and talk to God. Otherwise, they try to avoid him, except in major crises. They miss the dual related points that this is the Lord’s earth, all of it all the time, and their liturgy, the work of life offered to God, is 24/7. When St. Greogory Palamas can speak of prayer as integrated with breathing, it is not a Christian yoga method, but a way of life when the breath of life and the pneuma of the Holy Spirit merge in the living liturgy of our very being. The traditional daily hours of prayer then are summary moments in that liturgy of life, rather than isolated from it.
And the God who indeed loves the sparrow and has chosen to bestow his love even on us, creatures quite possibly less lovable than sparrows, helps us practice, grow, mature through our spiritual infancy until the goal is in sight, and we hear with joy the shout of “nikos!,” he has overcome, victory is won, and the harvest of love adds another grain to the company of heaven.
“Nikos, ο νικων,”=see the conclusion of each of the letters from Bishop John to the churches in the Diocese of Ephesus, in the first chapters of Revelation. It is the victory shout of one who has won the race.