It might not be that prayers are ineffective. It might be that we suck at prayer.

Recently, occasioned by yet another tragedy (and even more recently with the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame), social media was flooded both with folks who offered up thoughts and prayers, and those who pushed back against such offers. The intentions and accusations of those responses were wide ranging, but as someone who prays, the charge that such sentiments were “ineffective” proved the most vexing barb. It got me thinking: why are we so bad at prayer?

Thoughts are not Prayers

There are several aspects to this problem, but a fundamental one stands out in my mind: equating prayers and thoughts to begin with. This juxtaposition shows we imagine prayer to be a sort of little mental exercise, a ruminating about things. We hear often of the soothing quality of prayer, its potential to ease stress, its ability to address our own personal well-being. But what such praise amounts to is a defense of therapeutic meditation at best, or a justification of the corporate sanctioned “do-it-yourself-self-care” at worst. If it sounds self-absorbed, that is because this brand of “prayer” is. Prayer is ineffective if we think it is “charge our batteries” time, and then hope to extend these “positive vibes” to others who are profoundly hurting.

Look, if the chaos and wickedness of the latest newsreel gets to you, by all means, take it to prayer.  If you are angry about these injustices, be angry to God about it—send Him your anger. Be mad at Him about it if you want, He’s a big boy—He can defend Himself. Only be prepared to be exhausted by prayer, frightened by it, accused by it, challenged by it. Be afraid that there might not be the answers you seek, or frankly, any. Be mortified that God might show up and frighten you with the reality of who He is, or who you are. Be apprehensive about the whole project—that I can understand! Just don’t make a mockery of it by neutering it of its vitality and then blaming it for being impotent.

A personal aside that makes this point. Coming from an Evangelical background before becoming Catholic, folks will ask me what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus. I am not sure what they expect to hear from me—I don’t know what that can mean other than actually speaking with Him, and prayer is where that happens! When they seem unimpressed, and ask for a sign that one’s prayer life constitutes a “personal relationship” with Our Lord, I ask them a simple question. Have you ever had a relationship with a real life person where you never, not once, gotten angry with that person? When they inevitably say “no,” I proceed to ask when the last time they were angry with Jesus was. 

For you see, even in imagining prayer as a relationship, people are prone to sanitize the whole affair, even as they confess a Deity who knows all things before we tell Him! Whose feelings are we trying not to hurt when we withhold things from God? Prayer does not inform God of things He is in the dark about. God knows what we need before we ask. Instead, to plagiarize St. Augustine in his letter to Proba, prayer is about enlarging our hearts to receive gifts we are not beforehand prepared to receive. And one of those gifts precisely is friendship with Our Lord and Creator, which makes us bold to ask Him: why did this happen, Lord? What do you plan to do about it?

Prayer as Action

So though it may fly in the face of popular opinion or even practical experience, I will argue it is never the case that prayer is not enough. I do not say that blithely—perhaps counter-intuitively, but not flippantly. It is obvious that plenty of prayers are not answered, at least as they are asked, and I am no way making the case that all prayer intentions are resolved to our liking by the roll of the credits. But Our Lord declares that with some things, they can only be obtained through prayer and fasting. That alone demands that we refuse to see prayer as a private mental event opposed to action. Prayer IS action, or we are, indeed, not even praying.

Jesus admits that for some things, an extraordinary effort must be made in and through prayer. Christ shows us that prayer is not a flippant action—it is a demand that He makes of us, and in varying degrees. The truth is not that thoughts and prayers are bad, it is instead the case that we often merely play act at prayer. Prayer is an act, or it is nothing at all.

While fully realizing that “mental prayer” not only exists as a venerable tradition in the Church but is something we should all do, it must be said that prayer fundamentally regards the will. The older English phrase “I pray thee” gets at this well: prayer is an entreaty, a plea, a favor asked. Prayer before all things is begging, and one who is naturally a beggar perhaps has one leg up regarding prayer over someone who is by nature a thinker. Prayer is not the polite thoughts of a mind far away from the action, nor even a welling up of proper sentiment or emotion. As it involves the will, it is a movementbefore all things, and carries with it all the turbulence of movement.

Wrestling with God

You want something to stop? Do you grow tired of these pitiful conditions we find our fellows in? Then plead and wrestle with God. Be Jacob with the Angel. Be willing to be a spiritual victim for these people. Of course, be willing to be told you are wrong about your entreaty, to hear that there is some greater mystery at play than your petition, to see the answer to your prayer consisting of God throwing you into the middle of the crossfire of it all.

But don’t make a half-assed nod at prayer and then say it can’t change anything. We cravenly want to pray, make no sacrifice, and passively watch as the world transform. What we want is magical wish fulfillment. An incantation of the right words said. The alchemy of proper emotion. A potion involving a few tears and social cues, and then the uncomfortable thing be gone. It is a childish desire, and the critics accuse us rightly if that is all that prayer amounts to. But what is lacking in all these counterfeits of prayer is what truly sets prayer as an act apart: sacrifice. None of them are serious about the sacrifice required for prayer. Prayer in the end is an offering, and a whole burnt one at that. Prayer is an oblation of the will, and there is no oblation without transfer. Something must be given up. If it is not a kinetic and kenotic process, then I am afraid we have not prayed.

Because neither prayers, nor thoughts, nor conservative or liberal talking points will solve a single problem in this world without sacrifice. Only the sacrifice of a broken spirit, of a contrite and humbled heart, the Lord will not despise.