The last few weekends we have noticed a significant drop in Mass attendance and we began to ask whether people pray less in the summer. Are people just on vacation so not at Mass, or do people go to a different Mass in the summer while we tend to continue with our normal time? That then led us to revisit a presentation we have done on prayer and why prayer should be part of a marriage. We think/thought about why we pray and why we need prayer in our couple relationship. Assuming that we both have a relationship with God that involves communication and that prayer is our response to God’s communication to us then the question is in what ways can we respond to God together? There seem to be four ways to respond. The first is to worship, second we respond in thanksgiving, third, recognizing our helplessness we petition God and lastly we include prayer of forgiveness in our response to God.
An evangelical Christian friend once said to me “Catholics aren’t very good at worshipping God.” She taught with me and commented that it appeared to her that while Mass was supposed to be the center of Catholic worship how uninvolved so many seemed to be. She said in her experience some priests celebrating the Mass looked totally bored. Her words came to my mind Saturday evening as we drove away from Mass. Friar JohnPaul, OFM was not bored and uninvolved Saturday but the attendance made me wonder whether she was indeed right. Praise means honoring God with all that we have and we can certainly do that at home or in the car or on the beach but worship involves some kind of sacrifice. It also has to be sacrifice that is freely made because I do know that on some occasions I’ve made the sacrifice but out of duty not freely to submit to God and allow myself to be changed. My question was why do some find it easier to make the sacrifice while others don’t? This has been a discussion with us on more than one occasion. We found some things that helped this make sense of this aspect of prayer and make us more worshipful.
To be able to worship God we have to recognize that while God is so much a part of everything we do and have, when we are praying to worship we are acknowledging that God is beyond all human understanding. There is no reason why God should have created, loved us and given us each other in marriage. But it is true. The best example for us is the Gospel story of the Transfiguration. It appears in Scripture that Jesus had an especially close relationship with Peter, James and John. He often took them aside or out alone. This appears to be the story on the day of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes the three off for a little time together and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear along with Jesus and Jesus himself seems to have totally changed—is transfigured before their eyes. They have absolutely no idea what happened but they fall to the ground in worship. Following that they want to build tents to honor the three. (Check out the details of the story. Mt 17:1-13 ;Lk 9:28-36; Mk 9:2-8) Just as the disciples, we have to acknowledge that we have no idea what God is really like. Even St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, after much study and writing, couldn’t put who God is into words that make it real to us. Worship is simply our acknowledgment of God’s existence and that we have no idea why God created us, sent his son Jesus to die for us, exactly how Jesus was Resurrected or what resurrection for us means. What I do know is that in my relationships with others, most especially with Bob, I have come to know love and what it means to freely sacrifice. It is through this that I/we have come to know God because God is love. For that we praise God and continue to make sacrifices to give God what God deserves. I keep thinking of it in terms of our marriage. I would never be who I am without being aware of the goodness of our marriage and if I didn’t praise Bob for all that he willingly does and to continue to freely sacrifice all that I am and have to love him in return. That is what worshipping God is about. It is me/us abandoning ourselves to God and allowing God to do with us what God will because then we experience the Transfiguration and become transformed in our own ability to love.
When we admit that God is so beyond us that we cannot begin to fully understand who God is, we must also admit that we do not know with any certainty what God wants for us or wants us to do in a particular situation. It is something we see and hear often. The phenomenon of WWJD, the “What would Jesus Do?” bracelets, has value in making people stop to think about their actions. It brings an awareness that in many situations there is indeed a right and a wrong action. However, the words we use: ”What would Jesus Do?” can be quite presumptuous and lead to a certainty in action that does not really exist. In scripture, not even his disciples knew what Jesus would do much of the time. He often upset the status quo and the people who preferred it. I have always been uncomfortable when I hear a clergy person preach about his latest talk with God and what God says all of us must do to avoid some calamity. I am often surprised how in tune God is with his politics. I have always found it prudent to be careful how I interpret what I hear from God in prayer, knowing how easy it is to hear what I want to hear and miss the real message.
We can worship God as our creator, the One who gives life and without whom our lives would not continue. Since the gifts we have are from God we can take no credit for them. We have no right to see our gifts or, by extension, ourselves, as better than any other person. I am better than Rita at understanding how things work and keeping computers working, cars running or teaching physics. Rita is better than I am at teaching ethics and has a wonderful gift that prompts people she has never seen before to share the intimate details of their lives with her. At parties, on airplanes, at checkout counters people start talking after she says: “Hi”. It’s amazing to watch and sometimes we joke that she must have the word “sucker” emblazoned across her forehead. In fact, we know that she has a tremendous gift for listening and offering solace or helping people to sort out the difficulties in their lives.
My brother David was one of God’s great gifts to my family and especially to me. He was born with an extra thumb and Down’s Syndrome. He was diagnosed as diabetic at the age of 2. He was also my Godchild. David never learned to read or write or tell time. His speech was limited. He understood something about numbers, was fascinated with peoples’ ages and would enter your age on his little calculator when he saw you. He also knew when it was time for his favorite TV program – The Dukes of Hazard. For a number of years he lived in a group home and often spent time in the hospital. When I went to visit him his face would light up and he would yell Bob! Then he would take me around the home or over to the nurses’ station and introduce me to everybody in sight. It’s nice to have a brother who is really proud of you. When he died at the age of 43 large numbers of people came to his viewing. One after another they told me stories about how David had touched their lives and how special he was to them.
David, Rita and Bob. Three people with three quite different sets of gifts. Each with a unique but equally important place in God’s creation. We worship you lord and give you thanks.
We also worship God as designer of marriage and sex. If we acknowledge that as true then we have to see our vocation of marriage and our sexual intimacy as a call from God and our way to God. We worship God in the ways we treat each other in every aspect of our married life together. God desires for us to communicate our needs and wants, to love each other, to listen, to fight to keep our relationship strong and foremost, and also to celebrate our relationship by having sexual intercourse. Does this involve sacrifice at times? We all know that the answer to that is yes. But when we do all of this out of love and our desire to be transformed we are worshipping God. I think that puts all the things that I do in my relationship with Bob into a new perspective. Who would think that when we are fighting to keep our relationship strong or when we are making love that we are worshipping God? That’s a powerful reason to be married.
We worship God as creator of our children. We are not their creators but merely the channel/vessel through which God enlivened them. Our response in worship is to love them, respect them and encourage them as they grow to have lives of their own. This too involved joyful sacrifice. Too often today children are possessions, or parents relive their childhood and adolescence through them. Parents live with great fear of anyone caring for their children other than themselves in the hours that they are not in daycare. We worship God when we recognize that our call is to give our children roots and wings. I was talking with our children a few years ago and somehow the conversation turned into a discussion of how Bob and I had parented them. They said “you did everything right.” “You gave us a reason to grow up and have lives of our own. There were things you didn’t give us and things you wouldn’t let us do. We had to leave home to recognize that you loved us with the boundaries you had for us. As we were growing up you allowed us to want to explore the world and with all the possibilities that we are now exploring on our own. Don’t worry you guys were great parents and we find ourselves doing many of the same things, now that we are parents, that you did.”
We worship God when we acknowledge God’s presence in others and so treat them with reverence, love, respect, dignity and a spirit of service. Prayer of worship calls us to go beyond ourselves in service to God’s people. God’s presence in all other persons means that they are deserving of this respect and dignity. The simple act of service to another is worship of God.
Youth minister, performer and composer Tom Booth has a song based on Psalm 136 that starts with the lines: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” Prayer of thanksgiving or gratitude is possibly the easiest prayer for me. I have always seen God in the wonder of his creation. I remember the awesome power in summer thunderstorms when I was growing up and a magnificent rainbow on the side of a mountain in Hawaii that lasted 45 minutes. One of the awesome privileges of being a physicist is seeing the laws of physics and the things that we can make when we understand them. I see how forces hold up magnificent cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris and the inner workings of a computer that seems like it shouldn’t work at all. I am aware of God’s hand in making a Michelangelo when I see his great works of art, thankful for the awe I feel when I see them.
I try to be always conscious of the good things God does for me and for us. I wake up in the morning and thank Him for another day to live and worship him, for Rita and all the good people in my life. When Rita and I pray together during the day we thank God for things we got done, something we have seen and always for the people in our lives. When we make love, we thank God for the wonder of our sexual relationship. Even in small things we thank God – when we are in a parking lot and find a space near the door of the store, Rita is likely to say: “Thank you Jesus!”
We have always had gratitude for God’s goodness to us, but lately we are trying to thank Him by thanking the people who come into our lives – the people who wait on us in restaurants and clean our hotel rooms, checkout people in stores. We thank our children and grandchildren when they do something for us or just for being who they are. We even thank people we meet in conversations while traveling for spending a little time with us.
Being constantly thankful was and is a wonderful experience for me. It makes me joyful and increases my zest for life and for that, too, I am thankful.
If worship is the type of prayer we find most difficult to do, petition is likely the one we most often use. How often in the course of the day do we ask God for something—a safe trip, help in finding something, to be a good spouse or parent, courage to say the right thing? I have certainly been doing a lot of that lately. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians says “let your requests be known to God.” Most of us pray prayers of petition in time of great stress. Someone once told me that during WWII a saying was that “there are no atheists on a life raft or in a foxhole.” When I was teaching each year I had a few students who said they were atheists or agnostics and didn’t believe in prayer. It was interesting for me to note that when something tragic happened in their life most often an illness in their family especially a grandparent would have them have their hands up and reminding me that we had to pray that day and they would be the first to express a prayer for their grandparent. What does prayer of petition mean? While worship leads us to praise God for all we are and have, petition leads us to recognize our helplessness. As long as we are humans on the journey through life we will approach God as a person in need. We truly cannot get through this life on our own. Even our journey through this life began with our parents caring for us, the teachers who helped educate us and coaches who worked with us, the employers who gave us jobs and mentored us, the health care providers who serve us etc. How often do we not ask someone to pray for us or someone we know? This is also a mirror image, a parallel of our marriage. I cannot be married alone. I’m always a person in need and I can voice those needs to Bob. I don’t expect him to fill those needs but I know from experience that he so often does. That is also may experience of God. I just have to recognize my helplessness and my need for both Bob and for God.
Finally, we pray to acknowledge our failures, our sinfulness, and to ask for forgiveness from God. For me it is a time to reflect on the recent past and be aware of my behaviors. Where have I failed to do what I know to be right and done what I know to be wrong – especially in my relationships with other people. I ask not only for God’s forgiveness, which I know he will freely offer, but also the courage to confess to the person I have wronged and to seek forgiveness from them. Finally, I ask for the ability to see the good in anyone who has done wrong to me and to offer them my forgiveness. While I do this daily in my own prayers, Rita and I have a special way to forgive and ask forgiveness of each other. When we pray the Our Father at Mass we hold hands. At the words: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” we each squeeze the other’s hand as a request for forgiveness for anything we have done to hurt them and an offer of forgiveness for any hurts the other has caused us. I find that this helps me to stay conscious of the ways I am loving and failing to love Rita and it helps me to change my behavior when required.
Understanding these reasons for prayer has helped us to focus our prayer, whether couple or personal, and gives it purpose. We try to include each of these reasons in our prayer each day. It helps me to appreciate my dependence on my Creator, to be thankful for God’s great gifts to me, to acknowledge my helplessness in petition and to keep my relationships, with God and others, strong in asking for forgiveness for my failures as well as forgiving others their transgressions toward me.
So as you enjoy the summer, think about the sacrifices you make to get kids to activities, visit family and friends, find time to just enjoy each other. Maybe you could make one additional sacrifice and find time to pray in all its dimensions. It just might make the days of summer more enjoyable and transform you as a person and your marriage.
Please share with us your insights into prayer. Let us know what ways of praying work for you.