The psalms, in general, teach us much about prayer. They range in their forms from prayers of praise, to those of petition for mercy, or help, or protection. They cover the range of human experience and need and can serve as great resources for contemplation and for consolation. In this reflection, it is my intent to focus not so much on how we pray, but why we pray.
Prayer seems, on the one hand, to be an ingrained instinctual act. It rises naturally out of the deepest core of our being, into our consciousness at times of fear and loss, as well as in times of joy and celebration. In this passage we have a couple of wonderful images of prayer. The first comes with the first part of verse 2, “Let my prayer be accepted as incense before you.” This is as old an image of prayer as the Book of Genesis. In the story of Cain and Abel, smoke, the fragrant fumes of the sacrificial fire, rising up to the heavens gave a physical image to prayers. It spoke of prayer as being something lighter than air, rising to the heavens where God dwells. This is an image that is recognizable to all cultures. Because the smoke from Cain’s sacrifice did not rise to the heavens and Abel’s did, it caused Cain to succumb to jealousy and rebellion, thinking that God loved Abel more than him. Cain’s mistake was to see the incense as the prayer. Incense, though, is only a symbol of prayer. It is a lovely poetic image and, as that, it is an effective image for prayer. But what is important here about the poetic image is that it represents something deeper, that is, the fact that our prayer is directed to One Who Is Greater and above ourselves and all other things, One who knows our prayers before they even reach our mouths. Jesus tells us this when he tells the disciples, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8)
The second half of verse 2, “The raising of my hands like an evening oblation,” speaks of a physical gesture for prayer that is recognizable to all cultures. It is a gesture of supplication, and of offering. We seem to do this naturally too. In moments of joy, in moments of fear and desperation, we raise our hands and look up to the heavens often wordlessly, because words are not great enough to express our inner joy, or turmoil. Paul understood this when he wrote to the Romans: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26)
The real value of prayer is that it arises out of our depths as a recognition that we are small, that we are not in charge. It is a naturally humble recognition of the fact that we are creatures dependent on One Who IS greater than ourselves. In the Christian sense of that humility and submission to the One greater than ourselves, we pray not to appease a vengeful God. Rather, we pray in recognition of a God who loves us and forgives us, unconditionally. When we pray, it is not out of a fear that we might offend an angry god, or to appease a jealous god. Rather, we pray to One who loves us freely and generously, even though we do not deserve it. We pray because we love the One who loves us. We pray because we trust that love, because it was demonstrated so tangibly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Jesus tells us: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else, believe because of the works themselves.” (John 14:11) This is why we pray. We know that all prayer that is in keeping with God’s commandments will be answered by God.
It is out of this understanding and belief in God’s love for us that I wrote the following prayer. May it be like incense before the Lord:
“I know not how it is, Lord,
That you should make yourself
Small enough to enter under
The roof of this hovel that is my soul,
But I ask you to do so with all the humility I can muster.
Enter me, Lord.
Sweep my soul clean.
Light the darkness there.
Give me the graces I need
To rise up onto my feet
To begin walking in your ways
This day, and all those yet to come.
I pray this in your name, Jesus. Amen.”SKM: below-content placeholder