Our praying itself is as much God’s gift as is the answer to it. And prayer is not just God’s gift in the way that our power of speech or our health is God’s gift; prayer is God’s grace, and that means it is due to God’s own life within us, God’s own spirit within us. For God gives us not just our marvellous human powers and skills; he gives us himself, makes us able to live by his own divine life through his Son, Jesus Christ.
When we pray, we display a divine power which is in us because we are in Christ, sharing his life. We speak to the Father with the voice of his Son because we have been taken up to share in their Spirit. The great prayer, the first prayer, was the cross, when Jesus, for the sake of his fellow men and women, accepted total failure, crucifixion and death and left it all to the will of his Father. This was the prayer that was answered in the resurrection of Jesus and the redemption of the world. Whenever we pray it is because in Christ we are linked with that prayer; whenever we pray we share in that prayer, the prayer of the cross. Especially, of course, when we celebrate the sacrament of the cross, the sign of the cross, as we do in the eucharist, but also whenever we pray. Whenever. And whatever we pray for, we are in Christ.
Now this is an astonishing teaching: every bringing of our desires before our Father in heaven is Christ in us speaking to his Father and ours. There are people, you know, who cannot believe this. They will tell you that the only true prayer is prayer for higher spiritual things, unselfish prayer, prayer for the grace to be forgiving and kind, for a deeper understanding of the scriptures, for the conversion of sinners, prayer for others and not for ourselves. They are very shocked to if you say that praying to pass an exam, or worse still, praying that you will be able to afford a new car, is just as much part of the life of the Spirit.
You must indeed pray for the right things; but the right things are not the noble high-minded things that you think you ought to want, they are the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want. Genuine prayer is honest prayer, laying before your Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart—never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.
People often complain of “distractions” during prayer. Their mind goes wandering off on to other things. This is nearly always due to praying for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be proper and respectable and “religious” to want it. So you pray high-mindedly for big but distant things like peace in Northern Ireland or you pray that your aunt will get better from the flu—when in fact you do not much care about these things; perhaps you ought to, but you don’t. And so your prayer is rapidly invaded by distractions arising from what you really do want—promotion at work, let us say. Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer for edifying but bogus wants. If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted. People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer.
Never mind then if your prayer seems “selfish” or childish. If you will be honest in prayer, acknowledging that you are not very altruistic, that you do worry about your own interests, if you just try to be, and admit to being, as you are, the Holy Spirit, I promise you, will lead you into a deeper understanding of who you are and what you really want. For prayer is not only a matter of asking, it turns out to be about learning as well, about growing up, about discovering yourself. When you lay your desires, your true desires, before God, you begin to see them in better perspective. Quite often you find that they are not, after all, the things you really want most of all. If you bring these desires out into the light, not only the light but the divine light, the light of the Lord, you begin to see them as important but not the most important thing to you. And so through the practice of praying, God will often lead you nearer and nearer to realizing that in the end what you want most of all is God himself.