Praying When We Don’t Know How


He taught us how to pray while not knowing how to pray. That’s a comment sometimes made about Henri Nouwen.

It seems almost contradictory to say that. How can someone teach us to pray when he himself doesn’t know how? Well, two complexities conspired together here. Henri Nouwen was a unique mixture of weakness, honesty, complexity, and faith. That also describes prayer, this side of eternity.  Nouwen simply shared, humbly and honestly, his own struggles with prayer and in seeing his struggles, the rest of us learned a lot about how prayer is precisely this strange mixture of weakness, honesty, complexity, and faith.

Prayer, as we know, has classically been defined as “the lifting of mind and heart to God”, and given that our minds and hearts are pathologically complex, so too will be our prayer. It will give voice not just to our faith but also to our doubt. Moreover, in the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul tells us that when we do not know how to pray, God’s Spirit, in groans too deep for words, prays through us. I suspect that we don’t always recognize all the forms that takes, how God sometimes prays through our groans and our weaknesses.

The renowned preacher Frederick Buechner, speaks of something he calls “crippled prayers that are hidden inside our minor blasphemes” and are uttered through clenched teeth: “God help us!” “Jesus Christ!” “For God’s sake!”  These are prayers?  Why not? If prayer is lifting mind and heart to God, isn’t this what’s in our mind and heart at that moment? Isn’t there a brutal honesty in this? Jacques Loew, one of the founders of the Worker-Priest movement in France, shares how, while working in a factory, he would sometimes be working with a group men loading heavy bags onto a truck.  Occasionally one of the men would accidently drop one of the bags which would split open leaving a mess and a mini-blaspheme would spring forth from the man’s lips. Loew, partly seriously and partly in jest, points out that while the man was not exactly saying the Lord’s Prayer, he was invoking the name of God in real honesty.

So, is this in fact a genuine modality of prayer or is this taking the Lord’s name in vain? Is this something we should be confessing as a sin rather than claiming as a prayer?

The commandment to not take the name of God in vain has little to do with those mini- blasphemes that slip out between clenched teeth when we drop a bag of groceries, jam a finger painfully, or get caught in a frustrating traffic jam. What we utter then may well be aesthetically offensive, in bad taste, and disrespectful enough of others so that some sin lies within it, but that’s not taking the name of God in vain. Indeed, there’s nothing false about it at all. In some ways it’s the opposite of what the commandment has in mind.

We tend to think of prayer far too piously. It is rarely unadulterated altruistic praise issuing forth from a focused attention that’s grounded in gratitude and in an awareness of God. Most of the time our prayer is a very adulterated reality – and all the more honest and powerful because of that.

For instance, one of our great struggles with prayer is that it’s not easy to trust that prayer makes a difference. We watch the evening newscasts, see the entrenched polarization, bitterness, hatred, self-interest, and hardness of heart that are seemingly everywhere, and we lose heart. How do we find the heart to pray in the face of this? What, inside of our prayer, is going to change any of this? 

While it is normal to feel this way, we need this important reminder: prayer is most important and most powerful precisely when we feel it is most hopeless – and we are most helpless.

Why is this true? It’s true because it’s only when we are finally empty of ourselves, empty of our own plans and our own strength that we’re in fact ready to let God’s vision and strength flow into the world through us. Prior to feeling this helplessness and hopelessness, we are still identifying God’s power too much with the power of health, politics, and economics that we see in our world; and are identifying hope with the optimism we feel when the news looks a little better on a given night. If the news looks good, we have hope; if not, why pray? But we need to pray because we trust in God’s strength and promise, not because the newscasts on a given night offer a bit more promise.

Indeed, the less promise our newscasts offer and the more they make us aware of our personal helplessness, the more urgent and honest is our prayer. We need to pray precisely because we are helpless and precisely because it does seem hopeless. Inside of that we can pray with honesty, perhaps even through clenched teeth.

Our Deep Failure in Charity


Saint Eugene de Mazenod, the founder of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Religious Congregation to which I belong, left us with these last words as he lay dying: “Among yourselves, charity, charity, charity”. I don’t always live that, though I wish I could, especially today.

We are in a bitter time. Everywhere there is anger, condemnation of others, and bitter disagreement; so much so that today we are simply unable to have a reasonable discussion on any sensitive political, moral, or doctrinal issue. We demonize each other to the point where any attempt to actually reason with each other (let alone to reach agreement or compromise) mostly just deepens the hostility. If you doubt this, simply watch the newscasts any evening, read any newspaper, or follow the discussion on most moral and religious questions.

The first thing that is evident is the naked hatred inside our energy and how we tend to justify it on moral and religious grounds. This is our protest: we’re fighting for truth, decency, justice, God, family, church, right dogma, right practice, for Christ himself, so our anger and hatred are justified. Anger is justified, but hatred is an infallible sign that we are acting in a manner contrary to truth, decency, justice, God, family, church, right dogma, right practice, and Christ.  It would be hard to argue that this kind of energy issues forth from God’s spirit and does not source itself elsewhere.

Looking at Jesus we see that all his energies were directed towards unity. Jesus never preached hatred, as is clear from the Sermon on the Mount, as is illustrated in his great priestly prayer for unity in John’s Gospel, and as is evident in his frequent warnings to us to be patient with each other, to not judge each other and to forgive each other.

But one might object: what about Jesus’ own (seemingly) bitter judgments? What about him speaking harshly of others? What about him losing his temper and using whips to drive the money-changers out of the temple? Indeed, what about his statement: I have come to bring fire to this earth?

These statements are perennially misinterpreted and used falsely to rationalize our lack of genuine Christian love. When Jesus says that he has come to bring fire to this earth and wishes it were already blazing, the fire he is referring to is not the fire of division but the fire of love. Jesus made a vow of love, not of alienation. His message provoked hateful opposition, but he did not self-define as a cultural or ecclesial warrior. He preached and incarnated only love, and that sometimes sparked its antithesis. (It still does.) He sometimes triggered hatred in people, but he never hated in return. Instead, he wept in empathy, understanding that sometimes the message of love and inclusivity triggers hatred inside of those who for whatever reason at that time cannot fully bear the word love. As well, the incident of him driving the money-changers out of the temple, forever falsely cited to justify our anger and judgment of others, has a very different emphasis and meaning.  His action as he cleanses the temple of the people who were (legitimately) exchanging Jewish currency for foreign money in order let foreigners buy what they needed to offer sacrifice, has to do with him clearing away an obstacle in the way of universal access to God, not with anger at some particular people.  

We frequently ignore the Gospel.  Factionalism, tribalism, racism, economic self-interest, historical difference, historical privilege, and fear perennially cause bitter polarization and trigger a hatred that eats away at the very fabric of community; and that hatred perennially justifies itself by appealing to some high moral or religious ground. But the Gospel never allows for that. It never lets us bracket charity and it refuses us permission to justify our bitterness on moral and religious grounds. It calls us to a love, an empathy and a forgiveness that reach across every divide so as to wish good and do good precisely to those who hate us. And it categorically forbids rationalizing hatred in its name or in the name of truth, justice, or right dogma.

The late Michael J. Buckley, looking at the bitter polarization in our churches, suggests that nothing justifies our current bitterness: “The sad fact stands, however, that it is frequently no great trick to get religious men and women to turn on one another in some terrible form of condemnation. Wars, even personal wars, are terrible realities, and the most horrible of these are often self-righteously religious. For deceived or split off under the guise of good, under the rubrics of orthodoxy or liberality, of community or of personal freedom, even of holiness itself, factions of men and women can slowly disintegrate into pettiness or cynicism or hostility or bitterness. In this way the Christian church becomes divided.”

We need to be careful inside our cultural and religious wars. There is never an excuse for lack of fundamental charity.



The movie Million Dollar Baby tells the story of a young woman who becomes a professional boxer. Young, strong, and physically very attractive she captures your heart as, against all odds, she eventually rises to the top in her sport. But then the story turns tragic; she is unfairly hit by an opponent and ends up paralyzed, her body broken and with it her health and attractiveness. And her condition is permanent, there is no cure. She chooses to end her life through euthanasia.

I had gone to this movie with a young couple, both solidly committed to their church and their faith. Yet both of them were in strong sympathy with how this young woman chose to die. Perhaps it was more their emotions than themselves speaking when they justified her manner of death: “But she was so young and beautiful! It wouldn’t have been right for her to spend the rest of her life in that terrible state!” In their young eyes, her debilitated state stripped her of her essential dignity.

What is dignity? When and how is it lost?

Dignity is a promiscuous term, constantly shedding different partners. It is also a sneaky term. Sometimes it no longer means what it used to mean and nowhere is this truer than when the term is applied today to “death with dignity”?  What defines death with dignity?

Shortly after Brittany Maynard died by euthanasia in a case that caught wide public attention, Jessica Keating wrote an article in America magazine assessing that death from various points of view. At one point she takes up the question of dignity and writes: “The use of the term dignity to describe this death is deeply problematic, since it masks the reality of fear and equates dignity exclusively with radical autonomy, choice, and cognitive capability. The result is a not-so-subtle implication that the person who chooses diminishment and suffering dies a less dignified death.”  (America, March 16, 2015)

In much of our talk about death with dignity today there is in fact the not-so-subtle implication that the person who chooses diminishment and suffering over euthanasia dies a less dignified death. That is hard to deny, given the dominant ethos of a culture wherein physical diminishment and suffering are seen as a very assault on our dignity. This has not always been the case; indeed in former times sometimes the opposite was true, an aged, physically diminished body was seen as something dignified and beautiful. Why is our view of dignity different today?

They are different because of how we conceive of dignity and beauty. For us, these have to do mainly with physical health, physical vitality, and the physical attractiveness of the human body. For us, aesthetics is a house with one room – physical attractiveness. Everything else assaults our dignity. That makes it difficult for us to see any process that diminishes and humbles the human body by robbing it of its vitality and physical attractiveness as being a dignified one. And yet that is normally how the death process works. If you have ever journeyed with someone dying from a terminal disease and been at their bedside when he or she died, you know that physically this is not pretty. Disease can do horrible things to the body. But does this destroy dignity? Does it make one less beautiful?

Well, that depends on one’s spirituality and on what one considers as dignified and beautiful. Consider Jesus’ death. By today’s concept of dignity, his was not a very dignified death. We have always sanitized the crucifixion to shield ourselves from its raw “indignity”, but crucifixion was humiliating. When the Romans chose crucifixion as a method of capital punishment they had more in mind than just ending someone’s life. Besides wanting to make a person suffer optimally and they also wanted to totally and publicly humiliate him by humiliating his body. Hence the person was stripped naked, with his genitals exposed, and when he went into spasms in the moments before death, his bowels would loosen. What can be more humiliating? What can be less beautiful?

Yet, who would say that Jesus did not die with dignity? The opposite. We are still contemplating the beauty of his death and the dignity displayed in it. But that is within a different aesthetics, one that our culture no longer understands. For us, dignity and beauty are inextricably tied to physical health, physical attractiveness, and lack of humiliating diminishments within our physical body. Within that perspective there is, seemingly, no dignity to Jesus’ death.

I am the first to admit that the issue of death with dignity is an extremely complex one that raises legal, medical, psychological, familial, societal, ethical, and spiritual questions for which there are no simple answers.  But inside all of these questions there still lies an aesthetic one: what, ultimately, makes for beauty? How, ultimately, do we see dignity? Does a person with a still attractive, undiminished, physical body who voluntarily chooses to die before that beauty is despoiled by disease die more dignified than did Jesus?