In Advent, the liturgical season which began yesterday, we reflect on the coming of Christ through contemplation and prayer.
Most simply and purely, prayer is communication with God. There’s no right way to do it, but there may be a right disposition, according to Monsignor Thomas Richter of the Bismarck Diocese, who, in a recent interview, noted that Christians often employ a pagan approach to prayer. (Relevant Radio’s The Interior Life, “Getting God Right,” Oct. 26.)
The pagans of Biblical times, Richter said, understood God as a supreme, all-powerful being that responded to their actions. In the Christian understanding, the reverse is true: God acts first, then we respond.
“There’s no goodness in God that he isn’t already showing me,” Richter said. Thus, our interaction with God should primarily be reception: letting God act in our lives.
Imagine God as the sun, he said, which is always shining and giving warmth. We don’t make the sun shine; rather, “We open up the curtains and see the sun that is shining.” Understanding God as constant giver, Richter added, helps us meet him more easily.
“People spend decades…trying to get God to be good, to act,” he said. Thus, when God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way we would like, we assume God doesn’t love us, or the object of our prayer, as much as we do.
The true Christian prayer, Richter said, should be a request that God not let us get in the way or try to change his will, which will always be better and more loving than our own.
When we miss this, we end up praying “to a God with potential rather than the true God,” Richter said, reiterating that Christian prayer shouldn’t be about getting God to act according to our will but God getting us to receive the good he already wills for us.
“If we let God do what he does, we become saints,” he said, and if not, we go in the opposite direction.
A caller asked, if this is true, why even bring our requests to God? Richter pointed to St. Augustine, who defined intercessory prayer as “expanding to receive what God is already doing.” It’s about “holding my need up before God so that whatever he’s trying to do for us can be done,” and creating a space for God to act.
Richter suggested imaging the Blessed Mother, on Good Friday, saying, “Stop this. Do my will.” If that had happened, we could not be saved. Instead, “Mary is standing at the cross in her great suffering saying, ‘This doesn’t make sense, but please don’t let my heart get in the way of what you’re wanting to do in this moment.’”
This kind of prayer, he said, comes from a deep conviction that God always has our best interest at heart.
Richter’s perspective can shift the way we relate to our good God, and Advent seems the perfect time to ponder and apply this potentially life-changing approach to prayer.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Nov. 29, 2021.]