A friend and I were talking before the celebration of the Divine Liturgy this past Friday. He shared with me his experience of transformative power of “The Prayers” of the Holy Tradition. His basic point was, and I am using my words not his, when we submit to ourselves to the form and content of “the Prayers” they are effective in conforming us as pray-ers into their image and likeness. He cited an excerpt from Leon Wieseltier in his book “Kaddish:”
“On March 24, 1996, which was Nisan 5, 5756, my father died. In the year that followed, I said the prayer known as the mourner’s kaddish three times daily, during the morning service, the afternoon service and the evening service, in a synagogue in Washington and, when I was away from home, in synagogues elsewhere. It was my duty to say it, for reasons that will become clear in this book.
I was struck almost immediately by the poverty of my knowledge about the ritual that I was performing with such unexpected fidelity. And it was not long before I understood that I would not succeed in insulating the rest of my existence from the impact of this obscure and arduous practice. The symbols were seeping into everything. A season of sorrow became a season of soul-renovation, for which I was not at all prepared.” p. vii
This concept may seem obvious but it is often not what our prayer life reflects on a practical basis.
There is no question that praying prayers is a means to an end. The question is, “What is the end?” Let me put it another way by asking, “Who is in control?” Often, our prayers are seen by us as a tool God provides for use to take in hand and use to get something done. Namely, His will. That betrays a very subtle control issue. The tool is taken by us and used. It is prayer that is submitted to us.
Let me offer what is a very different approach. Prayer is a tool. But it is not a tool we take into our hands. Prayer is a tool God has in His hands. He invites us to participate in His use of it to accomplish His will. The control remains with God. We are co-operators with God in His work instead of persons who seek to accomplish kind of a “separate assignment” on behalf of others or God. Once again, it is a control issue. In this approach it is we who submit ourselves to the prayers.
The distinction, though subtle, is critical. “The Prayers” require us to adjust them not them to adjust to us. The reason is multifaceted. The Prayers, designed by the Holy Spirit, have authoritative emerged in the context of the life of the Old and New Covenant people of God. They are, as a result, first, the perfect reflection of the will and ways of the God with whom we co-operate in praying them. Second, they are the perfect tool to conform the human “pray-er” into perfect agreement with the will and ways of God so they are effective co-operators with God. As a result, “The Prayers” have an agenda of fulfillment outward toward the what/who is being prayed for; and inward toward the transformation of the “pray-ers.”
To submit ourselves to praying “The Prayers” regularly, frequently, consistently, over the long term, as a fellowship is to be irrevocably and astonishingly changed. We become “righteous.” This is a struggle. We struggle with prayer, we struggle with what to pray, and we struggle to even pray at all. The journey of transformation in relationship with “The Prayers” is a long one and not without much inner pain and turmoil. We (at least I) attempt to make all kinds of deals with “The Prayers” and with God in the context of prayer. But, if we persevere in the struggle with integrity, we will become real, honest to goodness “pray-ers.” We will become prayer. The Scriptures quoted so often with regard to prayer in light of this approach, carries an new import. Indeed, when we submit ourselves to “The Prayers” rather than force them to submit to us, we become deeply righteous. And, we know, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5.16)