Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Prayer and the heart

It is amazing how busy my life is! Once in awhile it catches up to me. It certainly has this week. Instead of spending time writing, I am spending it reading and praying more. It's always amazing to me how much a little more effort yields, how much it changes my perspective on life, people, things. I suppose this is the purpose of Advent.

There is certainly a lot going in the world at present, including Pres. Obama's announcement that we will send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan for an eighteen month period. What bothers me is that, like the Bush Administration, Obama, in declaring Afghanistan not lost, has yet to spell out in a succinct manner just what our desired end state is, what we want to achieve politically and in terms of security (i.e., number of Afghani army and police troops trained, equipped, fielded, etc.). In other words, clear benchmarks against which we can measure progress. It seems to me that this is more important that saying by July 2011 we will begin reducing troops levels, which seems kind of arbitrary to me.

A picture taken by my friend, Carlo, last Thursday
So, many things, perhaps too many. It becomes increasingly clear to me how much prayer is needed. I am always bothered by how ambiguous that statement is. When we pray for someone or some other specific intention, we, too, need to be specific. What exactly are we praying for in any given situation? It is important for us to pray in God's will, which means to subject what we pray for to judgment. We judge our intentions against the criteria of the Gospel, not some subjective standard. While we certainly ask God to intervene, to get involved, to change the person or circumstances. What means does God use? Among the means at God's disposal, which are literally infinite, God primarily uses us, or at least wants to use us, as far-fetched as that may seem. This puts me in mind of Tolstoy's famous quip to the effect that everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to change himself.

It also seems that we use in far too sentimental a way sayings like Ghandi's "be the change you want to see." By what criteria do I judge the change I may want? In other words, how can I be sure that the change I seek is for the better in the service of the good? Even assuming that the change I seek is for the good, how do I become that change? These two seemingly disparate things connect. The primary means God has for intervening is us, as far-fetched as that may seem. So, the change we pray for most of all is a change in me, in my heart. Of course, I also pray for God to powerfully intervene in affairs and in the lives of people in ways that are beyond me, over and above me, or even ways too subtle for me to detect. I do this in the confidence that God is already involved and at work. I think of what St. Paul in that beautiful passage from his letter to the Romans: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect," then pray for that God's will done in you and through you (12:2). Prayer is not calling on a God who is otherwise absent. As Pope Benedict said at the start of this Advent: "God is here, he hasn’t retired to his world, he hasn’t left us alone." This was perhaps the major point I tried to make in my homily on Sunday.

It is crucial that it all start with gratitude, not gratitude generally, vaguely, and sentimentally construed, lifted up as a half-hearted gift, as some kind of God-ordained prerequisite, but genuine thanksgiving, a movement of the heart toward God for what you face right now, which is nothing other than a step toward your destiny. I think this goes some distance to unpacking what Paul means when he exhorts us to "be transformed by the renewal of [our]mind[s]."

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