When the human hands off her wish or hope or desire to God, what is the action taking place? How does prayer happen?
The kneeling murderer suffers through an attempt at prayer. Repentant yet addicted, he bows and shouts and almost hopes. As he prays, he notices he must adjust his brother’s royal crown on his own head. As he prays, he doesn’t notice his brother’s son lurking, both armed and wronged, behind him. The usurping king prays silently until he belts out a phrase familiar in feeling to many who have prayed as ardently as they could:
“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” Claudius mutters as Hamlet leaves the scene.
There are two reasons to say this about your prayer: either you don’t care about it much or you care about it a very great deal. In the first case, the one who prays finds herself offering an inauthentic, flippant set of words. In the second case, the one who prays is overwhelmed by her complete inability to be as attentive and genuine and repentant and real in prayer as her need demands.
Despite many failings, Claudius fits the second description – he cares about his prayer. This is no cocky, confident charlatan tossing holy words around for show. This is a man torn inside, who wants to pray and can’t pray as he needs to pray. His reasons for struggle are different than mine, but this murderer, certain that his words can’t rise above his thoughts, reminds me of my own inattentive and flighty mind set simultaneously and irreverently on genuine prayer and inexplicable wandering.
When the human hands off her wish or hope or desire to God, what is the action taking place? How does prayer happen? To pick on Claudius, it is clear that, in some sense, he believes himself to be the origin of his prayer’s power. He believes the action taking place to be primarily his own; God is passive.
This is always a problematic way of seeing God. We do not pray to a passive God. At our most ardent efforts to pray genuinely and attentively, we must remember that God is better at hearing prayers than we are at saying them. God is the most active participant in our prayer life.
The Heidelberg Catechism instructs, “It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer, than that I really desire what I pray for.”
This is what Claudius lacks (and perhaps some boundaries around not killing people). He does not have a sense that God has an active part in the activity of prayer. He believes that for his words to rise to heaven they must come from a perfectly attentive heart. This is not the reality of the human person. The reality of prayer is not duty or flawless execution or ready-made perfection. When I pray, I do not turn my perfection upward toward God; it is precisely the opposite.
Oh, Claudius, if you could see! You think your prayer does nothing, but Hamlet, because he sees you pray, chooses to delay killing you. The prayer you thought failed preserved your life. It is as though the God which Shakespeare portrays will react enthusiastically to even the faintest effort to pray.
The sense that “words without thoughts never to heaven go” conveys half the story of prayer: the half where I am active. But, the half where God is active is the more exciting part. He’s done this prayer activity quite a lot more than I have, and He is, demonstrably, rather good at it.
We come to prayer as genuinely as possible, and we remember that greater things are possible than our attention can facilitate. The author Fredrica Mathewes-Green writes, “However, when you are plagued with distraction and run through a hundred prayers without awareness, when you keep spurning thoughts of Christ for amusing trivialities, when you feel dry and stupid and the words are sand in your mouth, pray them anyway. Do not cease praying when prayer becomes hard, for fear of doing it imperfectly. If you cease praying when you can’t do it right, the devil gets the victory. So keep offering a broken prayer, and remember that you are only an unworthy servant, and yet Jesus wants you.”
In short, the feeling that we’ve failed to pray should never occasion the end of prayer, as it did with Claudius. After his pious lament, quoted above, comes the one-word sinful stage direction which he should never have followed, “Exit.”