Lent Course 2009: Prayers for Lovers


Whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive

Matthew 21:22

Supplication is so much by far the most practised form of prayer that for many people - religious and non religious - the two terms are indistinguishable. We might think of it as the most simple and unsophisticated form of prayer because it is, on the surface, a one-way communication from us to a deity. Having said that, supplication is a proper part of prayer enjoined by Jesus (Matthew 21:22) but it must be balanced with the other elements we have already discussed.

I have chosen to give this topic a Unit to itself because of its widespread usage and the serious issues which it raises.

1. The Essence of Supplication

In essence, supplication is a form of self examination which should result from a clear process, something like the following:

  1. When we pray that something in our condition should change or stay the same when threatened by change (let us call this an "end"), the necessary precondition is that we should examine the current state of things. We cannot seriously consider an end until we have ascertained what is 'wrong' with the current or 'threatened' situation. For example, we might think it proper to pray for peace in a conflict zone but if that means that the aggressor is rewarded for aggression, is that a proper thing to pray for? This illustrates vividly the necessity for self examination, to understand what we are asking for.
  2. Then we must define clearly what end we want to effect. Taking the previous example, do we really want peace at any price or is what we want conditional in some way? Do we simply want a ceasefire as a precondition to reversing the aggression? This is not a call for all of us to be experts in every field but simply to be conscientious as part of our self examination; God does not need us to be clear in stating our end but we do, for our own self respect.
  3. We must then carefully work out why we want an end. Is it for our own benefit or for someone else? There is nothing wrong with wanting something for ourself but we must not delude ourself into thinking that something is altruistic when it is actually for our own benefit. For example, we might say we want somebody to get better or, conversely, be "put out of their misery" not for their own sake but because their illness is causing us inconvenience. Again, there is no harm in recognising the inconvenience and wishing it were not there but, still, we have an obligation to care willingly for those who need us and supplicatory prayer is not an escape route from the obligation.
  4. In order  to limit ourselves so that we do not produce a long, untidy shopping list, we should then rank the different things we want. There are so many ills in the world and God 'knows' about all of them. Our job is to work out what we think is important, to raise it in our consciousness. For example, if we consider a large number of worldly ills in a muddled and unfocused way, we are not taking any personal responsibility for anything.
  5. As this is a self examination the next step is to ask ourselves what we are prepared to do about the situation we are considering. If we are, for example, praying for the starving, we need to ask how much we contribute to their relief. This shows why it is important to extricate ourselves from generalised, pious muddle.
  6. Having ordered our 'list' we may then lay it out before God as our clear, conscientious estimate of how we relate to the world we live in, what we are prepared to do in God's name, and where we need, subject to his will, God's help.

2. Efficacy

There is hardly a more difficult subject of concern to the everyday life of Christians than the efficacy of supplicatory prayer.

We must start by reminding ourselves of the process we have just considered; supplicatory prayer is a process by which we bring ourselves and our world to God through our own conscious and conscientious self examination. We might say, to use a trivial example, that we were desperate to find a parking space, said a quick prayer and, lo and behold, we immediately found one; this may be the 'answer to prayer' in a light-hearted, colloquial sort of way but the parking spot was not vouchsafed in exchange for the prayer.

The problem becomes more acute, however, when we move from the parking example to instances of prayer for those who are ill. Again, we must remember the distinction between what we do and the exchange model which we must reject. If we pray for the recovery of a person from illness and we encourage others to do the same, the fact that we are laying our concern before God as a conscious act of solidarity with the sick person may well give her strength to improve; but, again, any improvement is not granted in exchange for our prayers. This is why it is so important that people know when they are being prayed for.

Next in the scale of supplication we need to think about specific services of healing (which might be better thought of as ‘services for making whole') or special prayers recited in respect of a particular end. All such acts begin by our acknowledgment that we are subject to the will of God and that how that will 'operates' is beyond our understanding. As creatures acknowledging our Creator we are consciously describing our world and its hardships so that we personally and collectively become more aware of them. Services of healing and the like are consciousness raising acts of worship which bring us closer to those who suffer and bring them closer to God.

We need to distinguish the efficacy of supplication for our spiritual well being from God's exercise of divine power in what we might call miracles. When we misunderstand supplication as a transactional activity where we seek to exchange prayers for a cure, we are, in effect, praying for a miracle. There is nothing wrong with this as long as we know what we are doing and do not allow ourselves to make the same mistake as lottery players: it could be you but the odds against it are massive.

3. Supplication and Christianity

Nothing gives Christianity a worse name than our misrepresentation of supplicatory prayer. Whether we intend to or not, most of us give the impression that the chief object of prayer is to persuade God to change something in his creation; and, conversely, we therefore imply that when we pray for such change and it does not happen then either God does not 'care' or is unable to effect the change we request.

A further problem with this approach is that it gives a completely unbalanced account of why we are Christians. Are we, asks the outside world, Christians because that will give us some kind of divine leverage over the misfortunes that afflict us? Even when we are meeting together, we often make this mistake. If we are asked to bring news of our lives, good and bad, to God, how much of it is good? How often do we simply ask without considering for what we ought to be thankful?

One of our chief missionary obligations, along with bringing Word and Sacrament to all God's people, is to help them to establish a personal relationship with God through prayer which means introducing a balanced approach and not depicting prayer as supplicatory leverage or an act of exchange.

4. Mary & The Saints

If we understand supplicatory prayer as a process of self examination we will find it much easier to understand the role of the saints in general and mary in particular as intermediaries.

Think of a spectrum of divinity with the Creator God at the left hand end and us at the right hand end. Reading from left to right you would have:

Creator Redeemer Mary Saints Us
God God/man Immaculate woman Noble pilgrims Pilgrims

In other words, the people who are nearest to us are the saints and the 'person' farthest from us is the Creator. As what we are embarking upon is an exercise in self examination we might best be helped by undertaking comparisons between our own behaviour and that of the saints, Mary or Jesus. All of these human beings are aids to our self understanding and we make ourselves vulnerable before God with their assistance and protection. In this sense we do not pray "to" saints, we pray with them, uniting our prayers in the Church Militant with their prayers in the Church Triumphant. We are not for a moment equating The Saints or Mary with God but we are recognising their role as benchmarks by which we can measure our own response to God.

5. Theodicy

Perhaps there is no area of our relationship with God that is more difficult to understand than the existence of suffering and evil in the world and as Christians we have a special responsibility to understand this, for ourselves and in our witness in the world.

Let us start with a hard but simple proposition: there is no use praying for the elimination of natural disasters or for a world without evil; both of these phenomena are part of our condition.

It is not easy to explain why we live on a planet which produces natural disasters and where people suffer from illness. Nor is it altogether easy to explain why there should be evil in the world which God created. Here is a starting point for discussion:

Without natural disaster and suffering there is no material which can allow us to make choices between various courses of action, more or less virtuous, in the power of God's grace. In other words, if it is our purpose as creatures to choose to love God directly and through our neighbour, that choice is not available to us in a perfect world. Our imperfection defines us as choosing beings. It is for this reason that we need to be so careful of the suffering, for what they are going through makes our choice possible. Those who suffer are, literally, martyrs for God's purpose.

For precisely these reasons, we cannot pray in a general way for a world without evil. Making wrong choices is an inevitable consequence of choice; if we only made right choices we would, in effect, not be choosing at all. This is why in The Lord's Prayer we pray that it should not be us that are tempted.

These are very difficult arguments, not made easier by the mistakes we frequently make in respect of the nature of supplicatory prayer.

Ultimately, supplicatory prayer is not a substitute for our taking personal responsibility for our world; that responsibility is its necessary precondition. God can do anything, including getting us out of a tight corner but praying for such an exception should only remind us of the rule: what we do, as individuals and as humanity, lies in our own power.

6. Questions & Exercises

  1. Discuss the steps prior to supplicatory prayer
  2. Read the prayers for a Service of Healing and discuss their meaning
  3. Consider the role of Mary and the Saints in the life of the Church and in our personal prayer
  4. Work in pairs with one person role playing a Christian explaining supplicatory prayer and the other playing a sceptic
  5. Discuss the phenomena of natural disaster, human suffering and the presence of evil.