Life & Soul

Prayer should be for its own sake, not for reward


As I wait for interminable minutes on the car insurance helpline, I recognise that the muzak playing is The Sound of Silence. Is this irony, or sympathy, or some kind of admission? I was involved in a collision the day before, so I needed to sort out a replacement as soon as possible so as to resume normal service. Thankfully no one was harmed.

I know I am not in the most positive of moods, but the relentless dehumanisation of most interactions with any corporate body, and the fact that every enquiry must be kept within the limited parameters of artificial intelligence, is beginning to feel overwhelming.

Equally depressing is the way that, when you finally get a real person at a call centre, they speak like machines and regurgitate standard formulae which do not recognise that you might want them to listen to what you are actually saying, and that if you wanted to “do it online” you wouldn’t have just wasted 30 minutes waiting on the phone.

This de-personalised interaction is combined with the desire to immure access to the services or information you require in a labyrinth of passwords, code words and information which they are allowed to keep on file but you are not supposed to write down.

So I say my nine Memorares, which were Mother Teresa’s remedy for a time when you need help fast, and begin to make progress.

I remember Benedict XVI writing that “we pray for that which can only be gifted”. It’s a fruitful question to ponder in the light my crisis today, which threatens to disrupt so much of my hectic schedule. Do I pray for what can only be gifted?

It occurs to me that by definition one cannot dictate the terms of or content of a gift. My prayer should be for its own sake and not for reward. I fear that I pray rather like a child sending off Christmas lists to the North Pole for things which I am identifying as a requirement rather than receiving as pure gift. In other words, while I believe in the beneficence of the Giver, that belief is affected by the level of disappointment at his initiative when it doesn’t conform to my expectation. A gift becomes narrowly defined by whether or not it’s on my list.

With shock I realise that the other apt analogy is that when I pray, I am like the very call centre operatives that I have been criticising, because I keep asking for things without listening to what needs to be heard. I define the parameters of what rates as a “good” call with God according to the number of my own procedural objectives and the parameters I have defined for what I regard as optimal efficiency.

“That’s not our policy,” is the call centre formula which means “I will not engage any more with this.” I realise that the same phrase could be applied to my prayer when God asks me to wait or to receive something I haven’t requested.

All is grace, says St Thérèse, and “grace” is just another word for gift. To start from the basis that I do not actually deserve anything sounds very Jansenist, but actually it is one of those counterintuitive things that real love knows and accepts. It is not the gifts the lover gives, but the love that gives them which overwhelms, and makes them to be treasured.