A Selfish Prayer
If prayer is a request, then can there be a “selfish prayer”? This may seem like we are putting the cart before the horse since we haven’t discussed how one prays but I think it is an important aspect of prayer that we should discuss before going any further.
The obvious answer would be the person who prays only for themselves is guilty of selfish prayers. Like most things in life, I do not think the “obvious answer” is perhaps the correct answer. I make no claims about having neither great knowledge nor a theological degree that would have acquainted me with all the great minds on this topic. I sincerely hope you respond with your own thoughts. Perhaps the answer lies not in what we pray but in why we pray.
Prayer for many is a “last-ditch-call” for help. They go through their lives living the way they want or doing what they believe will get them what they want. At some point, they have decided what they need to be happy and they go about living a life they think we get them those things. They are following their own design and when things go terribly wrong, then and only then do they pray. For others prayer is an unlocking of what their deity would like them to do. This approach to prayer is less clear in results. After all, seldom do we get a text message from God, clear and written down for us to read and understand. While many would claim the scriptures serve that purpose, others would point out that even scriptures require translation for today’s living.
Prayer is considered a spiritual practice, a way of connecting with our deity, a way of connecting our lives with our faith. In 1540 a soldier named Ignatius Loyola founded an order of Roman Catholic priests we call the Jesuits. His purpose was simple to his monks: “Go out and find God in all things.” The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin explained: “God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paintbrush, my needle — and my heart and my thoughts.”
Ignatius developed what he called the “Examen” to help one recognize God in everything. A part of every Jesuit’s day and the foundation of their spiritual practices, this required them to be present in their faith and living. The first step is to become aware of God’s presence. All too often we hurry through life, never even seeing the person sitting next to us. The other evening I had a lovely five minute conversation with a gentleman I’d never met before. A mere two minutes after our conversation ended and the man had walked away, someone come up to me and asked if I’d seen Mr. X, a name I’d never heard. They then described him as having a moustache. The man with whom I’d been talking returned and was Mr. X. I consider myself a fairly observant person but I was more concentrated on his words than appearance and had never seen the moustache. Was I truly and completely present in those moments we conversed? How often do we overlook God?
The second step can be a bit trickier – Review the day with gratitude. When everything has turned completely upside down and you feel you are falling deeper into an impossibly dark and dreary pit, it is really hard to find nano-seconds of gratitude, let alone review one’s entire day with gratitude. I recently completed a bio for a social media page with a simple “I am alive” statement. Yes I was using a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor but really. If we are alive to be doing this spiritual practice in preparation for praying that is not selfish, should we not start with the obvious? We are alive and that is something for which we should be very grateful. Life is not something guaranteed nor given to everyone.
Step three takes care of everything we else we are feeling: 3. Pay attention to your emotions. We need to acknowledge what we are feeling and what we felt that day. Those are things, after a prayer of gratitude, we need to offer in prayer. Our feelings are valid. Let me be really clear on this. Resulting action based upon our feelings are not always appropriate. We cannot feel anger and then go hurt someone. We can and should offer that anger up in prayer. That is not only not being selfish, even though it is praying about self; it is a healthy way to disperse that anger and cope.
We have all heard the old cliché: “It’s not the destination that counts but the journey.” Step four of the Examen emphasizes this. 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. All too often we try to do it all, take on everything all at one time. Ignatius advocated selecting one incident or feature of our day and focus on that. It might be a pleasant thing; it might be a painful or disappointing thing. And it is okay if we select what we see as the easiest thing of all. Start with that and then pray from there. Trust your faith to arrive where you need to be. After all, prayer is about trust and faith.
Finally, Ignatius said to leave this period of introspection and prayer with a positive outlook. Number five simply states: “Look toward tomorrow”. A depressed person is not living faith to the fullest. Before I get some hate email about depression, let me repeat that. We do not live our faith to the fullest when we stop expecting goodness. Go back to Step Two – review the day with gratitude. All Ignatius is asking of us is to look forward to tomorrow with the same feeling. When I get out of bed expecting bad things, guess what? I find them! When I awake feeling positive, I have a much better attitude and spirit with which to deal with life.
Fr. Dennis Hamm, SJ, a scripture professor at Creighton University, calls the Daily Examen “rummaging for God.” He likens it to “going through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you are sure must be there.” Jesuits pray this Examen twice daily. My hope is to begin this practice during this series. Tomorrow we will discuss this in greater detail but for now, ask yourself this: Do I consider prayer a 911 [emergency] call or do I pray looking for something?