Sunday Night Journal — July 10, 2005
Sunday Night Journal — July 24, 2005

Sunday Night Journal — July 17, 2005

To Pray As We Ought

I don’t say this at all proudly, but I’ve never been much for reading Scripture on my own. Catholics of course are often criticized for this lack of attention to the written Word, but in my case the Church can’t take the blame, since I grew up Protestant and certainly didn’t lack for good examples and encouragement in this respect. I’ve been noticing, though, as I get older, that Scripture speaks to me more and more, whether encountered in solitary reading or at Mass. Frequently it’s almost oracular, as if a very specific message were being given to me, which I have no doubt is in fact the case for everyone who has “ears to hear”—the same words, with distinct and providential import for each one who receives it.

Today’s Epistle, for instance, always strikes me as immensely comforting and directly applicable to my own life:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.    (Romans 8:26-27)

It seems that I often find myself unsure of what to pray for beyond the always-safe “thy will be done.” I feel myself to be intruding on God’s prerogatives when I pray very specifically. I second-guess myself, particularly when praying for other people, and wonder if what I want is really what is best for them. This is true especially when the context is some situation where I’ve made such a mess of things that no resolution, no correction of the original wrong, is possible without further damage.

There is, moreover, something worse at work in me, a superstitious streak which is directly traceable to that well-known story by W. W. Jacobs, “The Monkey’s Paw.” It can be found online easily enough, but I’m not providing the link: if you haven’t read it, I don’t particularly recommend that you do so, because I don’t want it to haunt anyone else as it has haunted me. Suffice to say that it’s a variant of the old three-wishes pattern, and gives a truly horrible turn to the adage “Be careful what you wish for.” It’s marvelously effective, a masterpiece of the Edgar Allen Poe school of implicit horror. I read it as a child, and have (obviously) never forgotten it; I might have had this quirk about prayer without the story, but the story gives my misgiving a very definite and unforgettable shape: suppose I pray for the wrong thing, and God grants it, and something bad follows? Of course I know that this is nonsense, a defect in me, and that God is not the malign nemesis at work in the story, but still the idea floats around in the back of my mind when I pray for anything very specific.

It’s interesting that the King James Version from which I quote above—and which of course is not what I heard at Mass—has “what we should pray for” while the New American Bible has “how to pray.” They’re not necessarily contradictory—“how to pray” can, obviously, include the object of prayer—but I prefer the KJV. It emphasizes a more elemental form of assistance. “How to pray” might refer only to the difficulty of finding the right words; “what to pray for” gets at the fundamental problems of will and understanding, and offers to correct our deficiencies at their root and heart, assuring us that those groans—those longings, praises, regrets, petitions, and confessions—which cannot be uttered are perfectly known to the One to whom we so imperfectly direct them.


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