Precision. Accuracy. Clarity.
These are three words that, as a lawyer, I must always keep in mind. You see, lawyers are ever-cautious about finding just the right word, or that critical legal phrase, or that indisputable contractual clause. And most lawyers know that when crafting a contract, or any legal document, the one who controls the drafting process typically holds the advantage. Sloppy drafting often leads to misunderstandings, resentment, anger, and lawsuits. There are always lawsuits. So it’s not surprising that effective legal communication requires diligence, attention to detail, and, occasionally, not a little bit of cunning. So what does good legal writing have to teach us about prayer? Not much.
If it’s true that God knows our hearts even before we speak, precision, accuracy, and clarity aren’t necessary, although each may prove useful in helping us to focus in our own thoughts. But there are no mandatory legal clauses, no binding formulas, no formal rules of construction or of interpretation.
Many great books have already been written about prayer so I won’t unduly labor on about it here. But I will offer up some personal reflections and three, perhaps better, words – words that remind me to stay focused, centered, and connected. This is especially so when my daily stresses become burdensome, or when I’m suddenly tossed about and begin to fear the strong sea winds, or when my unbelief begins to outpace my faith.
Fear. Simplicity. Gratitude.
Fear. There is certainly lot of baggage wrapped up in that word so let me take a moment to clarify what I mean.
Proverbs 9: 10 tells us that: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” While we might understand how being threatened with God’s wrath would make us more, at least outwardly, compliant, we may wonder: how could fear possibly make us any wiser? Wouldn’t fear actually be counter-productive to learning? Wouldn’t it stymie our attempts to seek and gain wisdom?
Biblical scholars often remind us that there are significant limitations in our translation capabilities from one language to another. English may be particularly ill-equipped to handle the different shades of meaning that the original author or later translator may have tried to convey, whether in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. What comes to mind when we hear the word “fear” in our own language and in our own day may be feelings of anxiety, despair, and even paranoia. But the fear that the writer spoke of can be more properly understood to be “awe,” a powerful reverence, and a deep respect. It’s an intense appreciation of the power that God rightly exercises as both Creator and ruler – wisdom, if you will. Whether we are kneeling, sitting, standing, walking, or even reclining in our favorite chair, we can recognize and appreciate His awe-inspiring presence all around us: from the rich stirrings of that spectacular sunset, to the seen and unseen forces that threaten during a powerful storm, to an infant’s first discovery that he can harness the power of his mind to move and control his fingers and toes.
I need to remind myself that I am not with a familiar friend or even a close family member. I come before the Creator of all that I see and of all that I am.
But this awe and reverence can be tempered, if only just a bit, by Christ’s own teachings. We are, through Him, able to approach God as our “Abba Father.” Translators tell us that Abba is roughly akin to how a child might endearingly approach or refer to his or her own earthly father. (Some even say that Abba can be translated as “daddy” while others maintain that that translation is inaccurate or too simplistic a rendering.)
So, while I come respectfully and with reverence, I can also seek His presence filled with a child-like confidence, expectancy, hope and delight.
Simplicity. If God truly knows our hearts, then He already knows why we come before him, even as He longs for our time together. Except when it may help us to better focus, there really is no need for complicated or unending litanies about our health, our loved ones, our financial situation. And there is no reason to justify ourselves before God – as if we could – or to bargain with Him. We can relax and be ourselves. We can release our anxiety and our stress. We can rely on the plain and even silent language of our hearts as God knows our needs, those that are obvious and those that are hidden even from ourselves.
Christ briefly touched upon this language of simplicity in Luke:
“The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!‘” Luke 18: 11-13The tax collector’s humble and heartfelt prayer was at once reverential, sincere, powerful, defining, and simple – and thoroughly connected to his heart. The Pharisee’s prayer was anything but. It was self-justifying, arrogant, and dismissive. It revealed a withered heart. His words were without love, except maybe one that was directed inward. The Pharisee was indeed “praying this to himself.”
The tax collector spoke plainly of his contriteness, and his words reflected an expectancy of forgiveness, and of God’s healing power. He confidently assumed nothing more than the knowledge that our God is one of redemption and restoration, which is, after all, the central and defining story of God’s interaction with this fallen world. God will ultimately make all things right and new again, in our lives and in the lives those we love.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” These are simple yet powerful, trusting, expectant, hopeful, and loving words. Words that exhibit great humility, show tremendous understanding, and recognize God’s all-consuming love for us.
Gratitude. Gratitude for our very lives, gratitude for the opportunity to live and to love through another day, gratitude for our families, for our health, and for complete forgiveness. And gratitude that the Cross will ultimately set all things right again.
A brief prayer of gratitude – as simple as “Thank you, Father” – forms the basis of the first prayer of my every morning, and the last prayer of my every night. If nothing else, it’s enough. And it’s the one, simple, unerring way that I can take full possession of St. Paul’s counsel to “pray without ceasing,” because it can be invoked throughout the day, every day, in and through all things.
A prayer of gratitude expresses our love for Him, even as it reflects back our confidence in His love for us.
One Final Thought: The Universal Prayer
In addition to any personal intercessory requests that I might make of Pier Giorgio Frassati, most mornings start by my recalling the words of The Universal Prayer, attributed to Pope Clement XI. This prayer helps focus me on the day ahead while reminding me that I am totally dependent upon God’s grace if I sincerely seek to conduct myself with integrity, compassion, diligence, and humility. Among its words, you’ll find numerous examples of fear, simplicity, and gratitude.
Here is the version that I especially like:
Lord, I believe in you: increase my faith.
I trust in you: strengthen my trust.
I love you: let me love you more and more.
I am sorry for my sins: deepen my sorrow.
I worship you as my first beginning,
I long for you as my last end,
I praise you as my constant helper,
And call on you as my loving protector.
Guide me by your wisdom,
Correct me with your justice,
Comfort me with your mercy,
Protect me with your power.
I offer you, Lord, my thoughts: to be fixed on you;
My words: to have you for their theme;
My actions: to reflect my love for you;
My sufferings: to be endured for your greater glory.
I want to do what you ask of me:
In the way you ask,
For as long as you ask,
Because you ask it.
Lord, enlighten my understanding,
Strengthen my will,
Purify my heart,
and make me holy.
Help me to repent of my past sins
And to resist temptation in the future.
Help me to rise above my human weaknesses
And to grow stronger as a Christian.
Let me love you, my Lord and my God,
And see myself as I really am:
A pilgrim in this world,
A Christian called to respect and love
All whose lives I touch,
Those under my authority,
My friends and my enemies.
Help me to conquer anger with gentleness,
Greed by generosity,
Apathy by fervor.
Help me to forget myself
And reach out toward others.
Make me prudent in planning,
Courageous in taking risks.
Make me patient in suffering, unassuming in prosperity.
Keep me, Lord, attentive at prayer,
Temperate in food and drink,
Diligent in my work,
Firm in my good intentions.
Let my conscience be clear,
My conduct without fault,
My speech blameless,
My life well-ordered.
Put me on guard against my human weaknesses.
Let me cherish your love for me,
Keep your law,
And come at last to your salvation.
Teach me to realize that this world is passing,
That my true future is the happiness of heaven,
That life on earth is short,
And the life to come eternal.
Help me to prepare for death
With a proper fear of judgment,
But a greater trust in your goodness.
Lead me safely through death
To the endless joy of heaven.
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
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