… in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Philippians 4 v6
One apparent problem with the Jesus teaching is that it dumps rule keeping as a way to real human happiness but puts in its place only a vague exhortation ‘to love’ – whatever that means. It’s true that Jesus does not seem to have offered anything very explicit to help his followers grasp what ‘to love’ might mean and how it might be nurtured, which is perhaps why it was so easy for the early church to re-introduce just the kind of rule keeping that he had opposed. But over the centuries, elements within the church, accepting the barrenness of rule-keeping, have found ways of filling out what ‘to love’ could mean and have created effective ways of helping people achieve the internal change that it demands.
In form, many prayers ask God to do this or that for some particular person or group, and certainly many people have believed that a heavenly power, when so asked, would heed the petition if not necessarily respond in the hoped-for way. But to many other people today this belief seems misguided: they don’t believe in a god-out-there, running the universe like a king, and in any case, they feel, if there was a god-out-there he would know what should be done without needing any prompting. Jesus would certainly have agreed with this second point, and probably, at least in part, with the first too. This suggests that even if we do believe in a god-out-there to whom we pray, reminding him of what he ought to do, or asking him to do us a favour, is not really what we’re doing when we pray; there must be some other purpose to our praying. And if there is such another purpose, perhaps it would apply to prayer even by someone who did not believe in a god-out-there.
But will prayer work if we don’t believe in a god-out-there whom we might perhaps persuade to comply with our wishes? Most emphatically, yes. Praying for people is effective: research shows for example that people who pray for their partners are more faithful to them, and when you have prayed for a person or group in some particular difficulty you are naturally more inclined to do what you can to assist them. And indeed if they know they are being prayed for they will feel less abandoned than they otherwise might. So prayer changes the pray-er and the pray-ee, and this effect does not depend on the intervention of some putative god-out-there. The change brought about by prayer is related to love because love involves taking seriously the uniqueness of each human being, and when we pray for a particular person we focus exactly on their particular situation, on their uniqueness. As we pray, we learn to love those for whom we pray.
Consequently, there is in most church services an opportunity for intercessions – not really an appropriate word perhaps, but let it stand. This is a most important moment; it is not about ritual or understanding or tradition. It is exercise, and like any exercise it is intended to change us by making us more able to do things we desire to do more intensely, just as physical exercise makes us more able to run faster or jump higher: the exercise of prayer makes us more able to love. However regulated and ritualised other parts of the service may become, this part must always be particular and personal. Prayer books can offer reminders of the many categories of people for whom we might want to pray, but we are required to bring to mind, by name when possible, the particular people we will pray for. There is of course no reason why this kind of love-developing prayer could not be formulated without reference to a god-out-there.
If you are uncomfortable with using traditional words that imply a belief in a deity, you may want to try to set aside time and find a method which will allow you to ‘pray’ for those you care about and want to love more. One method is simply to have around you things that remind you of those you would pray for. Pictures are an obvious example, and many people carry around with them pictures of those they love. Then there may be objects that we see or use every day and connect with particular people; often they are things they gave to us. And occasionally when you see or use an object that you connect with a particular person, you can ask yourself, for example, when you last heard from them, what they might be doing just now, what concerns they may have – and of course whether there is something that these reflections prompt you to do; prayer without at least the possibility of action is pretty trivial, which is why it’s helpful to pray with a notebook to hand to jot down any actions that praying suggests. Another method is to use our giving as a kind of prayer. Giving gifts thoughtfully involves thinking about the particularity of someone, and it is in their particularity that we can love them. Making donations to charitable causes is not only the result of caring for people; thought of as a kind of spiritual investment, it can also be used to stimulate a loving attitude towards them, because we tend to care more about things that we put our money into; as the Jesus tradition expresses it, where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.
All this suggests that loving is not something that comes entirely naturally to us, but rather that it is something that we have to work at. There is a naïve idea that artistic inspiration comes simply by waiting for it; it doesn’t of course: artists know that it is only when they work determinedly at their art that – lo and behold! – inspiration comes. So it is with love: we have the capacity to love and we are made happy by exercising and developing that capacity, but love doesn’t just happen to us. Like artistic inspiration or physical fitness, there are things we must do to prepare ourselves to be what we, at our best, can be: inspired, fit – and loving. Prayer, whatever form it takes, is that preparation for discovering our loving selves.