If you feel tired and worn out, discouraged, and disengaged from what’s going on around you, if your energy and your hope for the future are fading and your insecurity is rising, you may take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Judy Levitz, founding director of the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Center in New York City, said recently, “I see a lot of people ‘going through the motions of living’ but, since they don’t know what to make of life, how to keep safe, how to have control over anything or make a difference in anything, how to have fun, they slip into a kind of detachment.”
We need to feel we have some degree of control. Take away our sense of safety, and depression and anxiety can set in. Considering the number of crises we’re facing today – covid, immigration, the heightened risk of nuclear war, the economy, increasing social and political division, the extraordinary stress on our democratic institutions, the list goes on – it’s no wonder thirty-three percent of Americans reported symptoms of depression and anxiety this summer, up from just eleven percent in 2019, a 200 percent rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (The Washington Post, 13 September 2022).
The details for Jesus’ first disciples were different, but their experience was similar. Jesus had been talking to them about the end time, and they must have been wondering what they would do, how they would live in the meantime. “We understand the Realm of God will be an era of justice, love, peace, and joy,” they might have said, “but what about all the injustice, hate, conflict, and sorrow here and now? What does faith look like in a world like ours?” Jesus responded by telling them a story “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1-8). Rather than tell you that you need to pray, which you already know, let me tell you some of what I’ve learned about prayer. Then you can make your own decision about praying.
First, whatever I may seek in prayer, God is drawing me into deeper relationship. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me,” God said through the prophet Isaiah; “I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me” (Isa. 65:1 ESV). How much more is God ready to be found when I return to God with all my heart, when I return to the God who “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:12-13). God, who desires to gather us “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Matt. 23:37), is already at work in us before we know it, creating our hunger for prayer to draw us into deeper relationship.
Second, prayer doesn’t need to be long and drawn out; even a minute of prayer counts. In his rule for monasteries, St. Benedict wrote, “We must be quite clear that our prayer will be heard, not because of the eloquence and length of all we have to say, but because of the heartfelt repentance and openness of our hearts to the Lord whom we approach. Our prayer should, therefore, be free from all other preoccupations and it should normally be short . . .” (Rule, chapter 20, trans. Patrick Barry OSB). The briefest and simplest of prayers can be more effective than the longest and most eloquent if it comes from “a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17).
Third, the true aim of prayer is not to change God, it is to change the one who prays. As I matured in Christian faith, it didn’t take long to discover that God is not a heavenly vending machine in which I deposit a prayer and get the response I seek. “How often have I desired to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). In prayer, in the most intimate moments of attention to God, God is at work to make me willing to be gathered under God’s wings. In prayer, I don’t persuade God to do what I want; God persuades me to be gathered to God. The aim of prayer is not to change God, it is to change the one who prays.
The fourth thing I’ve learned about prayer is that it is never selfish. Jesus spent lots of time on the mountaintop. He ate and drank with friends. He prayed, rested, laughed, and did many other things besides preaching, teaching, and healing. Everything he did, he did for others, to convince others of the reality of the good news, to show others it was possible to live in that reality, and to invite others to join him in that way of living. In God’s grace, prayer is not selfish, it’s not about me, it’s about others. Prayer is a movement of God that works to reconcile me and all of us, the whole world, to God.
Fifth, prayer may take me to uncomfortable places, and it almost certainly will. When I stop to pray, I have no idea where God will lead me. If I pray honestly and with integrity in the spirit of Jesus – “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42) – despite my dearest illusions, I have no idea where God’s will is going to lead me, except that it will ultimately lead me to my cross. It will lead me to lay down my life, my self, my desires, my will. And giving up my self and all I have known and desired, even everything for which I have hoped, is an uncomfortable thing to do. But that’s what surrender to God looks like, and it’s where prayer will finally lead before it leads to the complete fullness of life God promises.
And sixth and last, people will be able to tell if I pray and if I don’t. A famous musician once said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.” Because I pray, I am healthier as a human being and healthier as a pastor and minister of the gospel. People with whom I come into contact are healthier, too. This health can feel like something I’ve accomplished, but it is pure gift, the result of what God does to change my life and the lives of those around me. And it shows: people can tell if I pray and if I don’t.
Jesus left us a story about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Thirteen centuries later the Persian poet Rumi left us an insight (in his poem “Love Dogs”) about what that constant prayer may sometimes look like.
One night a man was crying,
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
you express is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.
Even when we don’t get the results we want; even when we don’t see any sign that God has heard our prayer or responded to it; even when we grow discouraged and consider giving up prayer altogether – keep praying. Pound on God’s door till your knuckles bleed if that’s what it takes. And if you don’t find words for it, pray by joining yourself to God through “sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26), by joining yourself to God through your whole way of life, so that your prayer becomes one continuous and uninterrupted turning toward God.