Paying Attention

Dear God. Please. As if a polite enquiry by way of preamble might confer favour. I have been giving thought in these last days to prayer and have begun to realise how appallingly superstitious I am about it. Time to tear up the metaphors about a wise and kindly Santa Claus, dispensing largesse. God doesn’t do quality control.
Leaving is a transformative process and we’re not very keen on it as a species. The chrysalis resents being metamorphosed into something else since this belongs to a pessimistic and possibly uncomfortable future which is, like the past, a foreign country where things are done differently. Our metaphorical chrysalis thus agonises as to whether his wings will be big enough and as time’s rollercoaster is outside of his control, his mumblings and sweating often find a voice in some abstract, wordless, inarticulate cry to the heavens.
Some thoughts then, some of my own and some not.  In “God Still Matters”, the Dominican scholar Herbert McCabe writes:
”For real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer. I reckon that more than 80 percent of our reluctance to pray consists precisely in our dim recognition of this and our neurotic fear of wasting time, of spending part of our life in something that in the end gets you nowhere, something that is not merely non-productive, non-money-making, but is even non-creative, it doesn’t even have the justification of art and poetry. It is an absolute waste of time, it is a sharing into the waste of time which is the interior life of the Godhead. God is not in himself productive or creative. Sure, he takes time to throw off a creation, to make something, to achieve something, but the real interior life of the Godhead is not in creation, it is in the life of love which is in the Trinity, the procession of Son from Father and of the Spirit from this exchange. God is not first of all our creator or any kind of maker, he is love, and his life is not like the life of the worker or artist but of lovers wasting time with each other uselessly. It is into this worthless activity that we enter in prayer. This, in the end, is what makes sense of it…

To ask if prayer “works” is to reduce it to a kind of magic. Prayer is not in the least bit necessary; it is more than necessary.

We never begin to pray, we always enter into prayer that has already begun before us and without us, the prayer of the church. We may pray alone, but we are never alone when we pray. “Our Father…”

“Prayer is a dangerous activity. In prayer we do not enter the kitten’s basket but the lion’s den. Prayer is a transformative activity. In prayer we are changed—and change hurts.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Prayer is not a private activity; indeed prayer is the most political activity in which a believer can engage. “To fold your hands in prayer is to begin an uprising against the world” (Karl Barth).

It’s a nonsense to suggest that prayers of thanksgiving trump prayers of petition and there is some kind of cosmic counterweight which asserts that as long as we don’t overburden the Almighty with our needs and wants, instead peppering our petitions with thanksgiving, it increases the probability that we will get a favourable response. We are children of God. What would I think about my own child if he always went about thanking, never asking, demanding or pestering?

Asking whether God answers prayer is fatuous. The Father is the object of prayer, the Spirit is the subject of prayer, the Son is the predicate of prayer. How then can God not answer himself? If God seems silent, it is only because he is ‘being God’ – listening and thinking. Archbishop William Temple once said, “When I pray, coincidences happen.” 

Prayer begins with the eyes. Prayer begins with simply paying attention.
Wherever did we get the idiotic and disabling idea that prayer must be a richly rewarding experience, I wonder? If I have ‘an arid time’ I’m simply not paying attention for long enough.

4 thoughts on “Paying Attention

  1. Even in 'an arid time', we participate in the dance of love that is our Triune God. For the Holy Spirit, deep within us and with inexpressible groans, offers up a perfect prayer on our behalf. Well done John.



  2. You've outdone yourself on this one. I find myself, at this late juncture, “paying attention” to when I act like a destitute, groveling, supplicant, sniveling away at a distant, omnipotent Deity, and when I approach my Father as a child – secure in our relationship, happy to be in His presence, and prepared to hear the responses to my conversation with Him.. all of them.

    I'm finding my attitude toward myself at the given moment is the difference… funny that. =)


  3. perfect – good word. In the sense of 'complete'and finished'. I've begun again in recent days to reflect on the fact that the Church needs more than ever to get hold of the massively pervasive and utterly complete work of the Cross.


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