I don’t remember being encouraged to ask God for what I wanted, back when my faith was being formed in my childhood and teen—and even young-adult—years. It was assumed that my natural longings would be tainted by sin and selfishness. If anything, I was encouraged to suppress my natural wants and wishes and train myself to pray for what God wanted me to have: conflict-free relationships, happy willingness to obey authority and serve others, the growth in my life of the Holy Spirit’s fruits of character, and my increasing ability—through my participation in the Church’s life—to spread the Gospel.
When we were in trouble, we prayed for help. When we or loved ones were sick, we prayed for God’s healing. We prayed to be delivered of uncomfortable emotions such as anger and anxiety. As I look at this now, I see that much of our prayer was defensive—a constant stream of prayers against life as it was.
St. Ignatius—and, indeed, quite a few of our saints and wise men and women—have taught me a different way to approach prayers of petition, prayers that ask God for something. I look honestly at my life and ask God for what I want and need. I allow my true desires to well up, and I voice them so that God and I can look at them together. Sometimes, as we study a request, I discover that it covers up the real desire, which is still tucked deep in my heart, as though it were afraid to come out.
If prayer were simply a transaction, we could line up the requests and hope for the best. But prayer was never meant to be so cut and dried, so businesslike. Prayer is communion between God and the pray-er. Prayer is the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to hover over a matter along with me so that I can relax into God’s love, let go of my fears and defensiveness, get a clear vision of what’s going on in me and in my situation, and work together with God.
God calls us to participate in ongoing creation of this world. Prayer is a way for me to engage with divine work inside me and outside me. But I cannot engage until my heart is free and my head is clear. I start out by saying, “Okay, this is what I want. What do you think?” And the conversation begins, and by the end of it I may understand that this want of mine is precisely right, that it pleases God and is a wonderful prayer to offer. Or I may learn that my heart has deceived me or that the enemy of my soul is pushing me toward something, making me feel desperate to have what probably is not that important or may even be harmful.
We must not be afraid to pray. We must not be afraid to tell the truth when we pray. We must not ignore what is going on inside us. A good prayer involves my voicing my honest wants and hopes.
However, Ignatius often emphasized that, before any other request, we should ask for the spiritual freedom to receive whatever God’s love offers us. Part of my ongoing prayer is to ask for a certain indifference to outcomes, so that, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen, I will continue in the confidence that God’s love and mercy surround me always and that I will be blessed whether or not I get what I ask for.
Then again, if I ask for God’s presence, I know that this prayer is already answered.