Prayer: Living the Discipleship of Losing

A dear friend and I were discussing the state of American religion recently. I had suggested that deism was deep in the American DNA, the concept of a god who started things off but then let go so that the mechanism of the world runs on by itself. My friend corrected me: American Christianity very much believes in an involved “god,” but one that keeps score: “Santa Claus Jesus” “sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

She’s right. That’s the peculiar form of American religion today. And everything about it is wrong.

Yesterday’s second matins reading comes from Tertullian’s work “On Prayer,” and he demystifies bourgeois idolatry:

“The old prayer, no doubt, brought deliverance from fire, wild beasts, and hunger, and yet it had not received its form from Christ: how much more fully efficacious then is Christian prayer!

“It does not station the angel of the dew in the midst of the fire, nor block the mouths of lions, nor transfer to the hungry, food from the fields. It has no special grace to avert the experience of suffering, but it arms with endurance those who do suffer, who grieve, who are pained. It makes grace multiply in power, so that faith may know what it obtains from the Lord, while it understands what for God’s name’s sake it is suffering.”

This might seem perverse to many of us present-day Christians: “more fully efficacious”! Isn’t that exactly backwards? Isn’t this just loser prayer?

Well, yes. The Christian, the one who follows Jesus, follows Jesus into losing. To be a winner in the world is the opposite of being a Christian. Prayer in Jesus immerses us in mercy and communicates mercy to the world:

“In the past prayer induced plagues, put to flight the hosts of the enemy, brought on drought. Now, however, the prayer of righteousness turns aside the whole wrath of God, is concerned for enemies, makes supplication for persecutors. Is it surprising that it knows how to squeeze out the waters of heaven, seeing it did have power even to ask for fire and obtain it? Prayer alone it is that conquers God. But it was Christ’s wish for it to work no evil: He has conferred upon it all power concerning good.”

Christian prayer is for blessing, not for cursing.

“And so its only art is how to call back the souls of the dead from the very highway of death, to straighten the feeble, to heal the sick, to cleanse the devil-possessed, to open the bars of the prison, to loose the bands of the innocent. It also absolves sins, drives back temptations, quenches persecutions, strengthens the weak-hearted, delights the high-minded, brings home wayfarers, stills the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, rules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports the unstable, upholds them that stand.”

Notice, the universal benignity of Christian prayer does not mean surrendering the victims to their victimizers. But it does mean that mercy pervades even our resistance to the powerful.

Prayer is the life of the Trinity, and must be the life of all that goes out from the Trinity. Prayer, therefore, is the analogy of being. Which is to say: Jesus, the very embodiment of the analogy of being, is prayer in Himself, for He is the Word Incarnate. And everything that belongs to Jesus, and that’s everything insofar as a thing IS, prays:

“The angels too pray, all of them. The whole creation prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray, and bend their knees, and in coming forth from their stalls and lairs look up to heaven, their mouths not idle, lifting up their spirits in their own fashion. Moreover, the birds taking flight lift themselves up to heaven and, instead of hands, spread out the cross of their wings, while saying something which may be supposed to be a prayer.”

The human person prays by following the eternal Word of God into the ordeal of the Cross, where occurs the full incarnation of merciful love.

I would like to conclude with an observation about the inclusion of Tertullian in the Liturgy of the Hours: it proves how profoundly catholic Catholicism is. Yes, it might be difficult to avoid including the “father of Western theology,” except he ended up as a schmismatic follower of the Montanist sect.

But, the fact is, he wrote many true and profound things. To be catholic and to be Catholic is to recognize that whatever is true, good, and beautiful partakes of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus. When we pray, we surrender “success” and lording it over others, and gain the Kingdom of transcendental love and joy, a Kingdom of servants eager for one thing above all: the turning of each heart to the crucified Jesus and the formation of one Body of prayer.