People talk a lot about prayer. But what do we know or understand about prayer? Do we, as believers, enjoy a sense of confidence about ourselves as praying people?
In the seminary I was warned against saying — as many, apparently, were accustomed — “My work is my prayer.” The priesthood I was preparing for certainly has its share of “workaholics.” Indeed, numerous people tend to define themselves by their work.
But God does not define us by our work. We are all called to take pride in our ability to make a living and to contribute to society. But, having mastered the skills necessary for whatever may be our “job,” we are then called by our God to look beyond activities which can be externally verified, and proceed to look within ourselves.
We are called to discover our “identity.” It was popular, some decades ago, to take the term “identity crisis” and joke around with it. People considered it a joke, I suppose, because it was held that people who did not know who they “were” were absurd. How can you not know who you are?
But an “identity crisis” is a very real thing. Indeed, it is necessary that every one of us discover that it is not enough merely to suppose that we are only the sum total of the things we do.
From our daily work which is seen by few, to the performance of public officials, we find many occasions for witnessing a great defensiveness which creeps into human affairs. If we are criticized for how we carry out the tasks before us, we find ourselves nursing an attitude which could be verbalized as, “Oh yeah? Well, I’ll show you!”
It is a great gift, held out to every one of us, to discover within ourselves an identity which goes deeper than the mere evaluation of ourselves by the supposed quality of our “performance.” As we look within ourselves, we acknowledge that each of us has a variety of qualities — some of which may be termed admirable, others less so.
We are fortunate that our relationship with our God is not founded upon our ability to be admired. God loves us — and love is quite a different thing from admiration. Admiration says: I am pleased with your “good” attributes. Love says: I value and accept you as you are, even in your less-than-desirable aspects.
We have a hard time believing that God could love us in this way — for, in fact, we have a hard time loving ourselves. If God so loves us, maybe we could find room in our hearts for a genuine love of ourselves.
My daily prayer is largely based on the Psalms, as these songs of the Jerusalem Temple have been esteemed as a fundamental “language” of prayer in Judaism and Christianity. The psalm book I was given on entering the seminary introduced its contents by proclaiming: “The Psalms are a series of shouts.” These prayers, in other words, are loaded with feeling. And no feeling is out of bounds. Grief, anger and joy: all are legitimate starting-points for prayer.
It is my intention to return to the theme of prayer in future columns. There is so much for us to explore.
You may be interested in knowing that the next Parliament of the World’s Religions has been scheduled for Nov. 1-7, 2018, in Toronto. See parliamentofreligions.org.