Pope Francis on prayer: Stop and ask for direction
God reveals himself and his will to us in prayer—all we have to do is take the time to sit and listen.
The following essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Meditations on Christian Discipleship by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis. If you are interested in purchasing copies of Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Meditations on Christian Discipleship or others from our Pope Francis book collection, click here for more information and our order form .
A theologian of our time tells us that “our dialogue with God is of a precarious nature; it is really just compensating for our lack of deeper communication and understanding with God. If we had never sinned, then loving God and responding to God’s words would be something natural for us.”
It is precisely after that original sin is committed that God asks the question, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). And so begins the history of this dialogue we call prayer. In prayer God makes it possible for us to draw close to God once again, for it is God who asks for us, it is God who calls out to us. We have seen in earlier reflections that this drawing close can happen only by way of the flesh: the Good Samaritan “approached” the beaten man (Luke 10:29-37), and the very Word of God drew close to us by “becoming flesh” (John 1:14).
When the Word of God draws close to us, we see the essence of obedience. The letter to the Philippians says, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
The letter to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 40 to show how this same obedience applies also to the incarnation: “Then I said, ‘See, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)” (Heb. 10:7). This is the obedience of Abraham’s “Here I am!” (Gen. 22:1-3), which reaches its culmination in the cry of Jesus in Gethsemane: “Yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36).
In each case flesh is required, for only flesh can be divested and passed through the crucible of contempt, dislodgment, derision, and humiliation. “Adam, where are you?” asks God, and it is Adam’s flesh that must obey the command uttered in that first dialogue with God: “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread” (Gen. 3:19). The bread that Adam eats will be earned by the sweat of submitting his flesh to humiliation and deprivation.
Flesh is required too in Abraham’s “Here I am!” to which God replies, “Take your son—your only son, whom you love, Isaac” (Gen. 22:1-2). Even Jesus prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36).
If we observe carefully, we see that this prayer of Jesus is intimately linked with obedience to a mission. We might say that it is through prayer that Jesus first discovers and then reinterprets his own mission (cf. Mark 1:38; Luke 4:42-43; Mark 6:46; John 6:15; and the prayer in Gethsemane, as we just saw).
Similarly, it is through prayer that St. Paul’s apostolic mission becomes effective (cf. 2 Cor. 1:11; Rom. 10:1; 2 Thess. 3:1), and that is why he prays unceasingly (cf. Rom. 1:9-10; Col. 1:19-20; 2 Thess. 1:3; 2:13). The first disciples also turn to prayer to discover the mission God is giving them, especially in difficult times (cf. Acts 4:24-30). The community does not ask God to punish the persecutors or even to stop the persecution, but begs only for the courage to be obedient to their mission, which is to proclaim Christ to the world no matter what the opposition.
Our ability to seek out, discover, define, and orient our mission—and be obedient to it—comes to us and grows in us only through prayer. Nonetheless, a prayerful attitude is not something detached from reality; rather, it is deeply rooted in our prior experience of concrete reality. It is a constant, persistent ritornello, or recurring theme, even in the midst of difficulties; it requires confidence in God, for “who else will put up security for me?” (Job 17:3; cf. Job 16:19-20; 19:25).
Despite vigorous protests and heated discussions with God, every believing soul possesses deep within itself a fidelity that keeps it true to its mission and a love for God’s word that no opposition succeeds in destroying (cf. Jer. 20:9). Even when persons of prayer experience pain and express lament, they feel at a deeper level the renewal of confidence that comes from joy, faith, and hope (cf. Jer. 15:16; 17:14). This indestructible zone of fidelity within us gives us a serenity beyond all explanation; it is a basic experience that is key for all types of prayer and for discernment of spirits.
“Hope does not disappoint,” Paul tells us (Rom. 5:3-5). It is to this conviction that we must have recourse. If we lose sight of this reference point, then we lose our stability. Our prayer becomes ever more “illusionary”; our flesh becomes “spiritualized” or “psychologized”; our obedience becomes caprice.
“But to what will I compare this generation?” asks Jesus. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt. 11:16-19).
Jesus calls this generation “adulterous” (Matt. 12:39; 16:4) because it has lost its orientation toward fidelity; it has no solid foundation in hope to which it can refer doubt or suffering or persecution. The people of this generation are guided simply by their fancies, by their “likes” and “dislikes.”
Because they know nothing of prayer or obedience or offering up of the flesh, this generation is unable to recognize the “Word made flesh.” They fabricate their own mission in life because their hearts are so unruly that they are incapable of receiving from the Lord a mission; they are unable to adore him in the immolation of obedience.
These are the people whose “fulfillment” consists in becoming certified bachelors and spinsters, not in being consecrated to a God-given mission that impels them to empty themselves completely, starting with the dispossession that comes with prayer.
The obedience required for prayer affects our own lives and wounds our own flesh. Let me explain. We often think of prayer as asking God for things or asking God to change situations that are difficult for us. No doubt, this is true prayer; even the Lord urges us to pray this way. But there is another basis for our prayer, arising from the certainty of our hope, as I mentioned above. Prayer touches the very depths of our flesh; it touches our heart. It is not God who changes; rather, it is we who change, through obedience and surrender in prayer.
The prophet Elijah went out in search of God. He was terrified and wished to die. But when he encountered God, his heart was changed (1 Kings 19:1-18).
Such also was the case of Moses when he interceded for his people. It was not God who changed his mind but Moses. He had known the God of wrath, but now he came to know the God of forgiveness. He discovered God’s true face at this moment in his people’s history: the face of fidelity and forgiveness. He learned how to take a just measure of his people’s sin.
Prayer is therefore the privileged place where God reveals himself; it is the space where we move from “what people think” about God to God as God truly is. Prayer is the place where silent faith grows before the revelation of mystery: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4). “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5).
When God sent an angel to Elijah to encourage him to keep going (cf. 1 Kings 19:5-8), or when the stubborn Jonah saw everything as hopeless, the Lord’s response was always the same: “Go back the way you came” (1 Kings 19:15). But this is not the turning back that results just from stagnant nostalgia or romantic restoration; rather, it is letting God’s response shatter the discouragement and the uselessness we feel in carrying out our mission so that new possibilities are opened up toward the future.
Restored by prayer, the prophet Elijah retraced his steps and found a more fruitful path: He called Elisha to assist him in his work (1 Kings 19:19-21).
Prayer, by dispossessing us in obedience, makes us realize that we are suspended in constant tension between what is finished and what is beginning. For persons of prayer something is always ending and something else is always commencing—nothing ever stands still.
This essay, written by Pope Francis while he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, is excerpted and adapted with permission from the forthcoming book Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Meditations on Christian Discipleship by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis; copublished by Crossroad and Claretian Publications. ©2013, The Crossroad Publishing Company (www.crossroadpublishing.com). If you are interested in purchasing copies of Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Meditations on Christian Discipleship or others from our Pope Francis Book Collection, click here for more information and our order form.