dear hilary: why we pray

Dear Hilary,

If God is other, if God is something inconceivable and beyond, why would we pray? Why should we pray? How do we even know if he hears or cares, if there is anything real about the Person you say you get on your knees in front of? I don’t want to pray anymore. And why should I?

The Challenger

Dear The Challenger,

I’m torn between telling you that I believe in intercession, in prayer, in the agonizing work of getting on our knees because of something about St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, and this one man who lives in rural Mississippi who I met last year on a trip down to see my mentor – and telling you that I’m not sure I always do believe it, but I pray anyway. Both are honest, in different hours of the same day, in different seasons of the same year. And the reasons behind our prayers are mysterious, I think, and somehow beyond words, but I’ll try.

I pray because of things like, well, the fact that God’s otherness has been brought so near to us in the image of God we bear, in how the Incarnation has flung all our ideas of “cosmic distance” out the window. I haven’t ever known what to say to the red shift and the rate of expansion of galaxies, other than to ask whether the Incarnation shouldn’t shatter any idea that we have about what love is, and what it contains?

And when I get on my knees in my office and bend my head and close my eyes against the too-bright office light, I’m not sure I know how to believe Him against the black holes, the waves and vibrations of shadows and shuddering dimensions, the unknowns. And call me a fool, but I remember a love so particular He knows my name, cares where I work, who I befriend… a love so particular, He came to earth to save me.


God is inconceivable; but it’s His movement that mystifies me more than His being. The fact of them: the fact of this Redeeming, the fact of this messy, sweaty, bloodied birth and life and death; the fact of his loving, not just in the hypothetical, but in the lived. I can say, “I pray because God has commanded me to,” and there is something in that all on its own.

I pray because God Himself cut the covenant. God saved Israel. God wandered with His people, through the years of disobedience and the agony of distance and all in the movement towards this pivotal mystery: the Word made Flesh.

And whether we want to, or not, doesn’t really seem the question you’re asking. I think if you waited a little longer, you might ask that question differently. I think you’d be asking whether you can trust the work of prayer. Whether it means something.

And that answer is a terrifying yes.

You can trust the work of prayer, of speaking words too big for your head and your heart, of interceding for a person you love.

I can’t pretend to really know why. My logical and theological arguments begin to fade at the moment when I face the real question – can we trust this – and I don’t know how to tell you yes. But yes.

God is inconceivable, beyond comprehension, the creator of the dimensions we know nothing about. And He is wondrously close to us. And His love is particular for you and me. And a love that particular is listening.



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