On NPR the other day, a reporter was interviewing a monk from a monastery in Austria who makes Youtube videos of himself and the other monks doing Gregorian chants. The monk said that these beautiful songs are just their routine morning prayers. So the reporter asked, “What are you praying for?”
“We are not praying for anything, because our praying is without any purpose. Our only purpose is to say that God, He is great [and] to give praise to Him because God is so Wonderful.”
I loved this answer! It was a refreshing way to look at it. The question of what to pray for has been a source of some twofold confusion for me lately: First, we don’t often get what we ask for. In fact, if it weren’t for the self-censorship of requests like Ferraris and whatnot that we learn in Primary, I’d guess the percentage of fulfilled requests would be close to zero. Second, I’m convinced that we wouldn’t really want many of our requests filled anyway. Allow me to explain how the confusion started.
My younger sister had just left for the MTC. The occasion sparked in me a renewed earnestness in my prayers. I was so happy for her, and at the same time so concerned–from a distance–for her welfare. All this emotion infused my prayers with the kind of desperate sincerity that can tend to wane when life is good and normal. One evening I found myself pleading that she wouldn’t encounter any difficulty at all in learning Korean, that everything would go smoothly, and that she would have no challenges at all. Then in the midst of this rapturous blathering on, it was as if an unseen hand slapped me upside the head and very suddenly I was struck by the complete idiocy of this request. Why on earth was she even going on a mission, if not to encounter some difficulty along the way? So I tried again, with about 80% of the previous enthusiasm, but that was still a great deal of rapturous enthusiasm: “if she does encounter challenges, fine, but let her quickly overcome them without becoming distressed by them”—a kind of calm the child not the storm approach. Fair enough. But this time, I was only about halfway through saying it before I realized this was also a silly approach to a mission. Isn’t distress part of the purpose of challenges? “Ok, so, let her struggle some and get distressed, but…” but what? I found myself all wound up with the feeling of really desperately needing some favor from God, but with no actual object of want. I had nothing to pray for. Everything that was supposed to happen to her presumably would, and I didn’t feel it was my place to ask any of it to unfold differently.
So what is our purpose in prayer? What fills the time, if not a laundry list of requests for strengthening, nourishing, and lack of harm or accident? It seems even our most righteous, well-intentioned requests are either unnecessary, if they will happen anyway, or even potentially harmful, if they would interfere with needed growth experiences.
I’ve heard the idea that things can be “predestined” to happen but are somehow only triggered to actually happen if we first ask for them, with enough faith. But I’ve come to view the “enough faith” part of it to be unnecessarily cruel in the uncertainty of its threshold. When going through my infertility crisis, that was all I ever fasted or prayed about. After a while, I felt I was stuck in a kind of cosmic Halting Problem, not knowing whether I needed to ask with just a little more faith and wait a little longer, or whether it just wasn’t meant to be. When is adding a “…but not my will, but thine” clause good form, and when is it just a cover for our lack of true faith? How do we know? At some point, I decided I was going to lose my mind if I kept up this endless just a little more faith and waiting stretch. So I put a strict quota on that topic in prayers–only once a week or so. Though a quota is perhaps not a very theologically satisfying resolution, in my case, it seems to have worked—both in terms of mental health preservation, and the kid thing too.
Thus, for a while now, my prayers have been heavy on expressions of gratitude and general worship. That is to say, I share some of the singing monks’ outlook. We sure agree on one thing: “God is so Wonderful.” The requests I tend to make most regularly are in connection with the repentance part of praying–requests for forgiveness and strength to change. But I’ve been getting the feeling that it’s time to revisit the formula we learn in Primary, where more specific material requests are part of the ritual. Maybe I can start by requesting greater understanding of what sorts of things I should be requesting.
Gentle reader: allow me to clarify that I fervently believe prayers should include requests and are answered, as I have had many very immediate, very tangible answers to prayers. This is simply a reflection on the inferiority of my will to God’s, and the idea that having some praise as part of our prayer is a good thing. Fear not, I shall fill many future blog posts with the stories of my answered prayers.
Don’t miss this video from the monks’ collection! It is truly entertaining (steel drum soundtrack!). Especially funny for Mormons I think, because it shows many of the same goofy impulses that we see in our own missionaries.