What person, however careless, who had to address someone of importance, would not spend time in thinking how to approach him so as to please him and not be considered tedious? He would also think what he was going to ask for and what use he would make of it, especially if his petition were for some particular thing, as our good Jesus tells us our petitions must be. This point seems to me very important. Could you not, my Lord, have ended this prayer in a single sentence, by saying: “Give us, Father, whatever is good for us”? For, in addressing One Who knows everything, there would seem to be no need to say any more.
Eternal Wisdom! Between you and your Father this was quite sufficient. This is how you made your request of him in the garden of Gethsemane. You showed him what you wished for and what you feared, but left it all in his hands. But you know us, my Lord, and you know that we have not given ourselves up to the will of your Father as completely as you did.
For us, it is best to pray for specific things, so that as each of them comes to mind we can pause to consider whether it is something good that we are asking for; so that if it is not, we should refrain from asking for it. Otherwise (being what we are, free will and all) we will not accept what God chooses to give us even if it is far better than what we asked for, simply because it is not exactly what we asked for. We are the sort of people who cannot feel rich unless we feel the weight of the actual coins in our hand.
St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection
Meanwhile, this lovely text from Teresa of Avila popped up in the Office of Readings yesterday, so I thought we could look at it for a couple of days. Teresa, John, and Therese have always been my personal teachers in the spiritual life.
This is a great teaching, in the context of commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, on just why it is that God wants us to pray for our specific needs. He does know what we need, after all, so why does He ask us to ask Him for this or that—healing, material provision, wellbeing of those we love, and so forth?
We always have to remember that God’s primary concern for us, while it touches upon all these things (since He is a loving Father who cares for us in all matters) is for our innermost being, our soul and not our bodies. God’s first priority with us is the healing of our person, not simply in our bodily health but in our spiritual soundness.
In other words, God’s first business with us is to transform us into lovers—lovers of Him and lovers of one another. He is mainly concerned with healing us of our selfishness in all its manifestations and conforming us to His own divine self through the gift of the Holy Spirit conforming us to the man Jesus Christ who is God.
So the point of our praying for our specific intentions lies in the divine shaping, the divine pedagogy. The Father wants us to have the same intimacy with Him as Jesus had with Him, the same absolute conviction that He is real, that He cares, that He is present to us and attending to us.
And this even holds when we pray for something and it is not granted. Then we are called, not to cynicism and despondency, but to reflection. Maybe that wasn’t the best thing to pray for. Maybe God has something else in mind. Maybe there is a deeper healing, a deeper blessing being bestowed. Maybe we should try to grow in trust and faith. We are all just little children who don’t know what we really need, what we should really pray for, and what is the best thing, and it is the struggle to pray rightly and all that comes with that which makes us grow up spiritually.
Those are the reflections that should come from the seemingly ungranted prayer, as praise and thanksgiving and joy should flow from the granted prayer. But the point of it all—our petitionary prayer, its granting, its non-granting—is to further in us the real divine work, which is the shaping of our innermost beings into faithful reflections of the Son, who is eternally turned towards the Father, receiving everything from Him and returning everything to Him.
That’s how we’re supposed to live, and in this imperfect broken-down world, prayer and petition is one of the ways God works this turning in us.