In the Fourth Nocturn

What is prayer?

In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them, for your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7–8, REB)

What use is prayer when God knows our thoughts and desires already? Doesn’t God know what’s best for us better than us, anyway? What does it actually mean for a prayer to be answered?

When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer. The third petition of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘thy will be done’, which is, in a sense, the most important, because it is a kind of summary of all the others: what God, through Christ, has instructed us to pray is obviously God’s will.

Nonetheless we must sometimes ask a little more than we can express with the short general formula Jesus gives us: we need to be specific. So we kneel or stand; put our hands together, or open them out, or hold our rosaries or crosses or bibles or prayer books; we close our eyes, or focus them on something. Whatever we do with our bodies, we open our hearts and minds and souls and express ourselves, knowing that God already knows what we have to say before we say it, but nonetheless we have a very human conversation with the unhuman divine — mediated through Christ who is both human and divine.

Opening our hearts and souls to God through Christ is the essence of Christian prayer. Prayer is an act of honesty. We can try to hide our desires before God, however righteous or sinful they may be, but we end up like Adam and Eve trying to hide in the garden. When we pray to confess our sin, God knows already that we have sinned. Indeed, we may know that we have sinned; by extension, God knows that we know that we have sinned. His desire is that we tell him about it, from the bottom of our hearts. When we ask for blessing, guidance, or healing, then we must similarly know that God already knows what we want, but he wants us to have that conversation with him: to approach him as thou (tu, du), our closest friend, and let him know personally.

The best we can do in prayer is confess our desires to God, however embarassed we are by them, and even if we know them to be sinful — hoping that they are acceptable in his sight, trusting that he will guide us in the right way if they are not. By growing in faith, we attune our desires to God’s will, make it easier for us to ask those things which God wants, and, by extension of that, to have our desires answered.

In order to be honest enough to open up to God, we need to be able to be honest with ourselves. St Paul, for instance, exhorts us to examine ourselves so that we may have a true faith, and prayer is the means to putting this self-examination into action to grow faith. Even if we don’t know ourselves well enough to know the inner desires of our hearts, God certainly does: in this way even if in no other, knowledge of self contributes to knowledge of God.

But we can never fully know God, at least not in our earthly lives. Therefore we must trust in his will, and trust that by our faith he will guide us to truly and deeply desire godly things; and in doing so we must know that we are trusting in something that is larger than us, that is unknowable. We must know that our submission to God’s will is not and never can be complete, nonetheless living in hope that when we pray, we can find it within us to let ourselves be guided into his paths.

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee. (The Burial Anthems from the Book of Common Prayer)

A Litany of Trust in God’s Will

Our Father, which art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done.
Thy will be done.

In earth like in heaven,
thy will be done.

In thy holy Church and for the ministers of thy Gospel,
thy will be done.

In our daily lives, in our work and at home,
thy will be done.

In our words and acts towards our fellow man,
thy will be done.

In feeding the hungry, lifting up the oppressed, and enlightening the hopeless,
thy will be done.

In the breaking of bread,
thy will be done.

Through all the gifts that come from thee,
thy will be done.

Through all our prayers,
thy will be done.

Through the forgiveness of sins,
thy will be done.

By guarding us from the snares of temptation,
thy will be done.

By saving us from evil,
thy will be done.

Hear our prayer, O Lord,
and let thy will be done. Amen.