Friday, January 11, 2008

All You Really Need to Know About Prayer You Can Learn From the Poor

Prayer and Poverty.

In one sense it is profanely presumptuous for any of us first-world citizens to meditate on or learn lessons from "the poor." For this reason I tend to steer clear of books that try to explicate the life of faith from the vantage point of the poor. But being in the used book business brings me in contact with books I might ordinarily pass up out of hand. One such book is Louise Perrotta's book of essays of poor persons of faith she has encountered in the course of missionary work in Haiti and Jamaica, "All You Really Need to Know About Prayer You Can Learn From the Poor."


Prayer for a disciple of Christ is not so much food for the continued nourishment of the soul -- Eucharist fits that role --but like the air we breathe. It is not something we "do" so much as a necessary element of daily existence which we take for granted until we find ourselves somehow cut off from it and in danger of asphixiation. Techniques of prayers are like the breathing techniques of yoga - a way to assume some modest amount of conscious control over a reflexive process without which a disciple cannot remain attached to Christ.

The "advantage" the poor have in prayer is the advantage that suffering affords any soul who by the grace of God maintains faith, hope and charity when pushed to the human limits of endurance day after day. In my own life, I reflect back on two major crises, the continued hospitalization of my father for bipolar psychosis during my adolescence and the death of my son Simon when I was 33 years old. Teenage Rae's faith was severely debilitated by the experience of daily life in a household with a beloved father turned scarily psychotic. Thirtysomething Rae's faith was sharpened to a keen edge by the experience of losing a son to death. Did my comfortable existence as a middle-class American render these experiences less real than the material poverty of "the poor" that Louise Perrotta encountered in her Caribbean adventures? I would argue no. The emptiness & continual brush-up with despair that accompanies a life of daily pain over which we have no control is a universal leveling experience.

As my mother used to say, money is no good for the things that really hurt in life, so we should use it to alleviate those things it is good for.

Perrotta reflects on one basic prayer:

'Lord, make me more like you.'

Anyone who prays this prayer has glimpsed something powerfully attractive about God... Having caught a glimpse of God, they have fallen in love with him and have set out after him.

But no one whose eyes have been opened in this way wants to stop with merely seeing, or even following God. And indeed, for all of us - no matter how clear or how dim our vision of God - something planted deep within us cries out for fulfillment: we want to be united with the One in whose image we were created. 'Our hearts are restless, O Lord,' wrote St. Augustine, 'and they will not rest until they rest in you.'

Reflect again on that most famous of St. Augustine's observations: Our hearts are restless, O Lord, and they will not rest until they rest in you.

Perrotta goes on to say:

Amazingly, this union that we long for is precisely what God has in mind. 'As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us...' is what Jesus prayed for just before he gave up his life on the cross (John 17:21).

There is a choice here before us - one that we express daily through a host of minor choices related to friends, activities, thoughts, attitudes, prayer. These everday decisions put us on one of two paths. On one, God's image in us will be dimmed, blurred, eventually obscured. On the other, we are revealed as shining images of God, transformed by him 'from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The people whose stories appear here [i. e. in Perrotta's book] have made their choice, each in their own way, to be drawn by love farther and farther down that sometimes painful, always joyful, road that leads to union with God.

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