Catholics of Steele

Prayer is not a cosmic vending machine

It seems a particularly American tendency to link effort to outcome: hours worked, dollars earned; calories burned, pounds lost. We’re not good at doing something just for the sake of doing it – for the love of that thing, for the leisure, for the fresh air. We want something to show for it.

But the simple cause-and-effect relationship we count on as kids – good behavior, gold star – doesn’t always deliver. We see this when we try to attach prayer to outcome, a practice that is always misleading and sometimes heartbreaking. How can two mothers pray to beat cancer and only one survive? Is one a better pray-er? A better person? More deserving of God’s saving grace?

These are hard realities for life-long Catholics, let alone the many people who were raised outside the church. Mark Shea, 54, a father of two from Seattle, is among that group; he grew up in a non-Christian home, converted to Catholicism in his late 20s and became a prolific Catholic author.

Though he’s elbows deep in theology books these days, Mark hasn’t forgotten the confusion he once felt when pondering prayer. “If God is all knowing, what’s the point of prayer? Isn’t He going to pony up anyway? Does he like to play Simon Says?”

Mark explored these questions in his book, “The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Rediscovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary,” published last year by Our Sunday Visitor.

“Prayer is not a cosmic vending machine,” Mark told me in a conversation about the book. “The point of prayer is not that God needs information or my helpful advice. But once you undertake the logic of the reality that God actually loves us and wants us to become persons in his presence then prayer makes perfect sense. A Greek magician would say God knows everything so you don’t have to tell him anything. Jesus says, God knows everything and therefore you can tell him anything,’ because Jesus is looking at relationship.”

That, ultimately, is why we pray: to deepen our relationship with God, to grow closer to our Creator. “It’s not that God needs anything,” Mark said, “it’s that we need to become persons in his presence.”

The only way to strengthen a relationship is to spend time with that person; so too it is with prayer, our chance to commune and converse with God.

But many Christians fall out of practice. Just as it’s hard to return to the gym after breaking a New Year’s resolution, so too can we get psyched out about prayer. We build prayer up in our minds as something that requires credentials, votive candles, initials after your name. We assume it must be steeped in Augustine theology, written in iambic pentameter, penned in calligraphy and bound in leather.

It’s much simpler than that. Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn reminded me of this last December in a homily he gave on the Saturday before Christmas, an afternoon when my mind was spinning with yuletide to-dos: party planning, errand running, present wrapping.

I’ll never forget his words, spoken in that slow, soothing voice of his, with such love and understanding. “Prayer is inviting Jesus into your heart,” he said. “Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus. Come.”


I felt a surge of peace and clarity with that gentle statement, as though something that had been tightly coiled in my chest had just loosened. I rejoiced in the simplicity: It’s as easy as that! Three words – one even. “Come, Lord Jesus.” “Come.”

Prayer is not a recitation or a competition; it’s an invitation. And isn’t it nice to be invited, wanted, welcomed?

Invite God in. Set the table, clear space in your busy life. And let the prayer that follows – the words that tumble out or trickle, or the silence that ensues – make you a little more like him.

By Christina Capecchi, Reference Points (Catholic Spirit)

Posted in Uncategorized on September 6, 2013.

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