Having enthroned himself as a god, modern man struggles with the ideas of prayer.  Why pray for something with a touch of uncertainty when I know that Amazon can get it to me in a few days anyway?  I’m only slightly joking, but it is true that affluent and wealthy peoples have a harder time developing the healthy sense of need, of sending a request out with the possibility of hearing a “no,” like one does with the form of prayer we call petition.  Our entire lives are filled with “yes.”  Click the “L” key and the letter appears.  Turn the thermostat and the air warms.  Order your cod liver oil capsules and the magic of an ancient source of vitality must no longer be conjured up from some muddy waters and fish guts but comes in a matter of days in a neat little pill.

Man in rawer times felt a different kind of tension with petitioning God.  Daivd cries out in the Psalms, who am I that God should listen to me?  We have the presumption that because we “know” how things work, like clouds and pressure systems and rain and probiotics, that we don’t really see them as gifts from God.  But anyone who lives by and with those natural things still knows them as a gift.  In short, they sense that God is real, powerful, and perfectly capable of answering a prayer.  The question isn’t, “Will He give me what I ask for?”  Rather, it’s, “Why would He give anything through my asking?  Why is my prayer a part of His giving, His action?  Why did the Supreme Source of life involve me at all any anything He does?  He doesn’t need me – I need him!”

St. Thomas Aquinas wrestled with this particularly, the tension of why we petition God for various intentions and needs.  In some of the final words he ever wrote before death, he makes us wonder why would we think prayer “does” something? Prayer does not make known “our needs or desires to God, for He knows all things,” he says. Also, “the will of God is not influenced by human words”—we don’t change God’s mind by prayer. But God still instructs us to make our needs known to Him “for he hath care of you” (1 Ptr. 5:7). God also tells us to be persistent in asking Him for specific things: “Ask, and it shall be given you” (Matt. 7:7). What, then, is the nature and purpose of prayer? Faith and hope, according to Aquinas, reveal to us that prayer “is necessary for man on account of the very one who prays,” which is us, “that he may reflect on his shortcomings and may turn his mind to desiring fervently and piously what he hopes to gain by his petition.” In other words, God has willed and created us in such a way that invites us to be a part of His fatherly work. Picture a capable man building a wall and handing his young son a hammer to help him. He does not need his son’s help and doesn’t gain something necessary from it, but he invites him in to be a part of it because he loves him as a son.  That is how he is going to build his house.  God too invites us to participate in His work as sons.  That is how He wants to build His house.

Thus, God’s will is that we gain by requesting “that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers.” Unlike other creatures, men “are exalted to the dignity of God’s image,” Aquinas explains, “Thus raised to be sons, men may reasonably hope for an inheritance.”[1] God not only gives us hope for the inheritance by prayer, but He prepares us to receive that inheritance by prayer, just as an earthly father might prepare his son by diligent training to receive the inheritance of a business or estate. Thus, “”[2] This is the reason, according to Aquinas, we are able to pray as sons with such confidence, “Our Father, Who art in heaven.”  We belong to Him.  He has work to do.  And He wants to do that work with us.  And that work is prayer.  Let’s get to work.

[1] Compendium of Theology, II.4.

[2] Compendium of Theology, II.4.


01 / 25 / 2024
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