"Prayer arises, if at all, from incompetence, otherwise there is no need of it." These words, coming as they do from the little Doctor of the Church, St Therese of the Child Jesus, struck me so deeply this morning as I walked along the Tiber. To pray is to accept my helplessness, to acknowledge my poverty, and to admit my dire need of God. I like to think of prayer as standing on the shores of time and beholding the unfathomable ocean of God's eternity. It is like trying to utter a faint whisper against the mighty roar of the incoming tide. It is an experience that humbles and chastens as I, with all my insignificant nothingness, am faced with the unlimited expanse of God's infinity.
Only a person who knows that he is nothing can pray. Only a person who is fully empty can pray. Only a person who is, in this sense, 'incompetent' can pray. He who fancies himself to be self-sufficient, autonomous and independent is already far too full to be empty enough to pray. Was not this the teaching that Jesus Himself gave in that master parable of the Pharisee and the Publican as recorded in Luke 18:10-14? The Pharisee prayed as though God needed him. He was conducting a one man self-exhibition of virtue! The Publican, instead, at some distance, not so much as even daring to raise his eyes, beat his breast in repentance and prayed, because he needed God. "Be merciful to me a sinner!" The helpless and in-competent Publican left the synagogue at peace with God.
So there's 'good news' for miserable mortals like myself! There will be days and times when we feel useless before God at prayer, when we feel such a void and emptiness that we might even want not to pray, when we might be tempted to view our 'incompetence' as so much time wasted. Time spent with God is never wasted. Instead it is an investment. We need to resist that temptation and to stay on in God's presence knowing that He fills our emptiness, enriches our poverty and turns to profit our nothingness. We need to resist the temptation too of wanting to be in command and of even attempting to check and control God when praying. We pray best when God is at the helm as His Spirit directs and guides us with His grace. Our incompetence and ineptitude at prayer far from being barriers are indeed bridges that help us to pray better because they reflect the reality of who we are. What a consoling and comforting thought it is to know that helplessness and emptiness are ideal starting and staying points from which to begin and carry on praying. And as I pondered, the Tiber seemed to agree as it silently flowed past apparently uselessly.