This is Moses’ prayer in Numbers! It seems an odd reading, especially since it’s recommended for the rite for the ordination of a presbyter.
Doesn’t this prayer by Moses fume with frustration, simmer with self-pity, even stew with ingratitude? Recall, this prayer comes after the baby Moses had been snatched from death by drowning and rewarded with a privileged childhood; after adult Moses had defeated Pharaoh and championed the Israelites; after the staff of Moses brought curses and plagues; after Moses was saved by the parting of the Red Sea, after Moses prayed for water and it sprang from rock and after he interceded for food and food rained from the sky. What else does Moses expect?
Three Challenges to the Priestly Pattern of Prayer
What can priests discover from this oddity?
Moses is the pattern for priestly prayer for this simple reason: he always prays as he is and never as he is not. This pattern of priestly prayer may sound simplistic, and it is simple, but often it is not easy. This prayer invites God into our holy of holies just as God invites us into His.
There are at least three reasons why it is not easy to pray simply, that is, to pray as we are rather than as we are not. The first reason is that we often do not know who we are. That’s not sinful, just human. So the first reason we can’t pray as we are is that we often don’t know who we are or what our heart desires.
Other men confide in their spouses. We need a spiritual director, confessor, mentor, best friend, support group, self-help group, accountability partner — someone in whom we regularly and transparently confide.
Father Vince serves as an example. All his life, his mother had warned him: “God is watching you!” Her words haunted him because it was a never-ending threat of retribution since Father Vince, like any human, was a never-ending mix of emotions, thoughts, motives and actions. Finally, in confession, Father Vince broke under the weight of this divine police state.
Like Moses, he rebelled against God. But once he revolted, he realized that he wasn’t really defying God after all, he was only defying his image of God. And once he had toppled that idol, he heard: “God is watching over you.”
What a difference between “God is watching you” and “God is watching over you”! Once he defied that idol he had deified, Father Vince was able to trust God who is just, but not judgmental; God who did not condemn him to a police state, but invited him to the state of grace. But, to pray as he was, he had to know who he was. He had been a terrified child, but once he acknowledged that, he became a beloved son. Regular confession to the same wise and patient priest had helped him to know who he was and, therefore, enabled him to pray as he was.
The second reason we often don’t pray as we are is because being who we are makes us uncomfortable. Anger, resentment, frustration, ingratitude are among the emotions priests often don’t want to feel because that’s not the way good priests are supposed to feel. We compare ourselves to others and always come up short. We feel guilty, ashamed, and unworthy so we avoid prayer altogether or else try to pray as if all those ugly thoughts, emotions or experiences weren’t part of the stained-glass image we try to become whenever we pray.
However, we could try to pray like Moses whenever we feel self-pity, anger, frustration. Of course, that sounds ungrateful since God has already created us out of love, saved us out of love, sustains us out of love, and even enables our ungrateful prayer out of love. Dare we pray as we are even when we know that what we are is not the same as who we should be or who we desire to be? The dilemma then is that we can either pray inauthentically or or authentically, that is, as we are.
Father Kyle had been abandoned by his father at age five. Through the charismatic movement he had a conversion that eventually brought him to the seminary where he learned a lot about Jesus. He was comfortable with images of Christ and the Spirit, but he never prayed to the Father. Of course, he mouthed the words, but deferred belief since he knew that fathers abandon their sons, and he wasn’t about to risk that again. He was ashamed of his father’s behavior and certainly too frightened to take risks with any other father figure. But to his surprise, after ordination he soon became the father he had always wanted, that is, he was a priest who exuded faithful love.
‘You Think I Am a Human’
During a retreat, when Father Kyle approached the shame and fear that had always made him uncomfortable, he felt God insist, “You think that I am a human.” Immediately, Father Kyle realized that he had always treated God as if He were human, that is, just as humans abandoned their children he presumed that God could too. But this flash of insight pierced his heart with the silliness of that image. He chuckled at how ridiculous it was to live as if God were like us and able to be measured by our standards. All the shame and all the fear were eased, and for the first time Father Kyle began to relate to God the Father. Although he had been abandoned as a child, he finally experienced God not as a limited, sinful human father, but rather as a faithful Father just as Father Kyle was to his own parishioners.
Father Vince and Father Kyle both eventually began to pray as they were. And when they were able to pray as they were, they realized that prayer does not begin with us, it begins with God. God makes prayer possible. It is because God loves us as we are that we dare to pray as we are. To pray as you are even when you don’t like who you are — and doubt God does either — is a creedal statement which proclaims that, despite our experiences or our feelings about those experiences, we will risk God coming close to who we truly are. And although it may feel ungrateful or unworthy, it is up to us to invite God in because He chooses not to enter unless we freely choose to host Him.
Now, since our will is weak and our faith limited, we’re probably not going to begin with immaculate belief in God’s love for us, and therefore, an immediate open-door policy. That’s OK. Remember: pray as you are, not as you are not. If faith is small, pray with little faith, such as “I believe, help my unbelief.” A sincere prayer made with little faith is infinitely better than any insincere prayer concocted with feigned faith.
Most of us pray as we think God wants us to pray, with a flutter of “offering up” even when we’re spiraling down. However, the pattern of priestly prayer is Moses who always prayed as he was, never as he was not. So we start wherever we happen to be. With little faith and lots of sin, or with lots of faith and little sin, it doesn’t matter as long as we pray and never stop and only will to pray as God permits. Of course, we can wish to be otherwise and sincerely petition for the grace to grow otherwise, and before and after prayer we can choose not marinate in certain feelings or nurture particular thoughts. However, while we are actually praying, we can will to pray as we are and risk allowing God to love us as we are.
We know that we are unworthy to invite God into the home of our heart, but we do so anyway because we believe that He has the Word to heal our hard heart. That Word is Jesus who invites us to this pattern of priestly prayer.
Thus we come to the third challenge of this priestly pattern of prayer — plain old sin. We are sinners, and we suffer the consequences of sin, and the first consequence is trying to be something we’re not — like Adam trying not to be naked. We’re fallen, we’re weak, we’re sinful, and most of the time we are as ridiculous as fallen Adam using that trembling, little fig leaf to try and cover his lost innocence.
But God loved us so much that He fell with us, right into the womb of the Virgin, right into our messy and painful human situation (Julian of Norwich: Showings, James Walsh, translator. Paulist Press). When we trust that truth, prayer begins with whatever mustard seed of faith we can muster or widow’s mite we can manage rather than some desperate attempt to contrive the faith of the Blessed Virgin or manufacture the hope of St. Joseph.
Only because God loves us as we are, can we pray as we are. Again this sounds simplistic, and it is simple, but not easy. Sin is what keeps us from praying, and sin is trying to be what we are not, refusing our place in creation as one of the most beloved creatures in God’s garden, but not the center of the universe. The pride before the fall was to fall into such pride. Remember: it was not God who told our first parents that what they were was not good enough and, thereby, tempted them to try to be something they were not by grasping the forbidden fruit and gasping at the bitter taste.
When we pray as we are, we give up trying to be what we are not, even when what we are not seems more holy than we are or ever will be. When we pray as we are, we pray humbly precisely because we pray honestly as sinners, and when we pray within our own sinful condition, we pray as creatures and not as Creator.
When we follow the pattern of priestly prayer, the prayer of Moses, we accept that the consequence of sin is that we cannot trust our own will no matter how promising the land we will to inhabit appears, but we can trust that the real paradise is to follow God’s will. Such prayer weans us from trying to divine what the future holds and teaches us to trust the Divine who holds our future in trust for us.
If we trust in this priestly pattern of prayer and pray as we are rather than as we are not, we trust God to love us into paradise even while we are wandering through the desert of our own sin. We rightly practice all the virtues despite our feelings, and daily strive for conversion regardless of our emotions, but in prayer we transparently place before God who we are rather than who we wish we were.
And now for a logical conclusion: if each of us prays as we are and if each of us is different, then, of course, we may pray differently. For some, contemplating beauty opens them to awe before the Author of such splendor. If St. Francis of Assisi were here, he might practice lectio divina, contemplating dawn over pines when it look as if those trees suck sunlight up from their roots to bronze their canopy. If St. John Damascene were here, the art in a cathedral might be his conduit for prayer. St. Gregory might be transfixed by chant.
The fact is that some people pray by inviting God to seep in through their senses. They may pray Scripture best by composing a biblical scene via their senses. What would they feel, touch, taste, see and smell if they were part of the Scripture they hear or read?
Others have to use their cognitive faculties in order to pray as they are. Were St. Thomas Aquinas here, you might find him gaping like a dumb ox in the library and not know that he was wrestling with great theological themes or doctrinal truths and needed to discourse with God until his mind again found rest in the divine order. Someone like him might prayerfully ponder questions that arise and give rise to meditation. Like Jacob wrestling with an angel, their minds won’t let go until they receive a blessing. That too is prayer.
Some lift up their hearts to pray and revel in the emotions expressed in Scripture. When they read of Abraham lifting the knife over Isaac’s throat, they weep with the father or tremble with his son. Like St. Augustine, they do not seek to manipulate emotions, but to use them to feel what the People of God felt and thus enter experientially into the scriptural scene.
Still others pray best using vocal prayer, those time-honored recitations from childhood or favorite saints. All of us take comfort in such prayers during those moments when we are too paralyzed to pray in any other way, as when in mourning. Extroverts may feel the need to share their prayer experiences in order to fully appreciate them. Introverts may prefer journaling.
Pray as you are. Allow others to pray as they are. Love God as He is, that is, the Divinity behind this dizzying diversity. If God had desired uniformity, He would have made it. He rejoices in unity, and differences between us need not divide us if we allow God rather than ourselves to hold it all together. And He will hold it all together, even if in prayer we feel we are falling apart. Desolation, therefore, is part two of this pattern of priestly prayer.
FATHER DAVIS, a Conventual Franciscan, has been a spiritual director for 25 years, and he is currently a spiritual director at St. Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana. He is the author of 12 books and over 50 articles, and his extensive pastoral work includes training and producing materials for the International Office of RENEW.