Crying. Wailing. Complaining. Beating the breast.
As the father of young children, my first reaction to seeing such words is to think, ''Sounds like the actions of a 2-year-old to me!'' But those are some of the words used to describe prayer in the Bible.
Last week the readings emphasized how prayer is a battle of faith and the triumph of perseverance. Today the emphasis is on prayer as petition. The Old Testament is filled with prayers of petition, most famously in the Psalms, which are often filled with poignant and poetic cries to God, as today's Psalm (34) indicates: ''When the just cry out, the Lord hears them, and from all their distress he rescues them. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.''
The reading from Sirach, which often contemplates the relationship between the Law and justice, contains similar expressions: ''The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens.''
It is understandable to think of petitionary prayers as simply requests for God to do something for us or for those we love -- something often miraculous or outside of our limited abilities and power. And, of course, our heavenly Father desires our prayers. But does he need them? Is there, as some televangelists suggest, a need for us to push the button of prayer, so to speak, in order for God's power to be released and realized in our lives?
Although such an idea can easily be distorted and lead to a superstitious approach to prayer, it does contain a kernel of truth. It's not that God is powerless to act until we ask him to, but that we are incapable of praising him and recognizing his action if we are not people of prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this truth simply and beautifully:
''By prayer of petition we express awareness of our relationship with God. We are creatures who are not our own beginning, not the masters of adversity, not our own last end. We are sinners who as Christians know that we have turned away from our Father. Our petition is already a turning back to him'' (No. 2629).
In other words, through prayer we more deeply and perfectly understand who we are and who God is. Prayer wakes us up from spiritual slumber and sloth; it opens our eyes to our fallen, needy state. This, in turn, leads to humility, trust and love, as well as acknowledgment of our sins and our need for salvation. ''The first movement of the prayer of petition,'' adds the Catechism, ''is asking forgiveness'' (No. 2631).
It is a profound paradox that those who are most holy are also most aware of their sins. This is accentuated in Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisees were commonly admired for keeping the Law in an exact, impressive fashion, even going above and beyond the requirements of the Law in fasting, prayer and other pious acts. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were reviled because of their work for the Romans and their willingness to defraud fellow Jews. Yet the Pharisee's prayer is not really a prayer at all, but an arrogant, self-congratulatory exercise. It is the tax collector who stands far off and keeps his eyes lowered, out of true respect for God, and beats his breast and admits that he is a sinner.
The admission by the tax collector was a sign of true humility. As Basil the Great warns in his treatise ''On Humility'': ''Never place yourself above anyone, not even great sinners. Humility often saves a sinner who has committed many great transgressions.''
This salvation, a free gift of God, consists of being made right, or justified, with our heavenly Father. In this way, man is made a child of God, a 2-year-old whose cries are always heard and answered.
Carl E. Olson is editor of IngatiusInsight.com