Here’s the second post in my series on prayer, started here. Petitionary prayer is asking prayer – and intercessory prayer is a subsection of this: a petition on behalf of someone else.
When Jesus taught his disciples a prayer, it was primarily an intercessory prayer: a salutation and a naming (Our Father in Heaven) and then a string of petitions.
Then, we pray three more petitions (or five, depending on how you are counting): one to have our needs met for this day (give us this day our daily bread), one for forgiveness – and this one is conditional on us forgiving others (forgive us our sins as we forgive others), and the last one for strength to resist when our faith is tried and be delivered at last into the embrace of God (save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil).
You might ask why we ask God for things, when he clearly knows both what it is that we need, and what he is going to give us.
The first answer is: because he told us to do so.
But Catholicism is a rational faith, and of course we can’t leave it there. Catholic theologians have come up with two more reasons for petitionary prayer:
- we pray in order to find out what we want – talking to God, and listening for his answer is a great way of discerning the difference between wants and needs. This applies especially when we ask for ourselves – but even when we are interceding on behalf of others, we will often ask for what we think is good for them rather than for what they actually need. This is why Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done – and showed us by example, praying in his agony in the Garden ‘Thy will, not mine’.
- we pray in order to participate in the work of God. God has so ordered the world that his intercession needs to be asked for. Some suggest praying triggers the action of a natural law built into the structure of the universe, others that God himself ‘stands at the door and knocks, and behold, if any should open it I will enter’.
To take a parenting analogy, we are like the six year old that helps make dinner. Mum could have done it herself – perhaps faster and more efficiently. But she didn’t. It was Junior that peeled the carrots, stirred the gravy, and put a date and a spoon of brown sugar in the space left after coring the apples. Yes, Mum chose to make the delivery of important parts of the meal dependent on Junior’s help –but nonetheless, Junior helped to make dinner.
And, like the six-year old, there is a point to this. We are learning how to intercede. According to the Bible, according to Catholic teachings, intercession is an important part of the work of the Church in Heaven. This fact, by the way, lends weight to the idea that prayer and natural law are closely linked. We sometimes talk about the saints praying for us as if they were members of the court of a distant oriental potentate. But, of course, they are the beloved children of the Father, and we are their younger siblings. So if the saints intercede on our behalf, as we are taught they do, it isn’t to bend God’s ear until he gives in to the nagging and changes his mind. Rather, surely, it is because the prayer of a saint has an effective impact on the universe.
That’s enough for one post. More types of prayer to come.
(This post first appeared in July on joyfulpapist.wordpress.com.)