Archbishop John of San Francisco on prayer.
Many people pray… They appeal to God at different moments in their life, not only under the stress of difficult times, but also in times of joy, from a surfeit of bright emotions. Often they pray to Him at the beginning of an endeavor; more rarely - at the end of it. They pray spontaneously, reaching out to their Creator in a burst of thanksgiving or repentance. They pray methodically, in the morning and at night. They pray for a greater length of time in church.
The words with which man appeals to God are varied; the nuances of feeling are numerous; the strength of aspiration differs; the depth of faith is unequal… And yet, all mankind is united by that great force - terrible in its power of responsibility - the force of prayer: it unites all ages and generations, all the splinters of our fallen and shattered mankind, - people of different nationalities, persuasions, ideas, situations. If the world has still not fallen apart, still stands and keeps man upon it, it is because from all the corners of the earth, from all its mountains and all its abysses there arises prayer to God, a sigh of His creation.
What is prayer? It is a conversation with God. People experience great happiness and remember for the rest of their lives the occasions upon which they have had the chance to talk to some prominent personality, of high estate or great talent, a person of world renown. How much more, it would seem, should people appreciate the opportunity to converse with the One Who has created all prominence and renown in the world. What a shiver of joy, it would seem, should be caused by the realization of being able to have direct contact with the one and only Master of heaven and earth… But people continue to have such slight and indifferent awareness of God’s nearness.
What is usually valued in prayer? People value the opportunity to ask for something from the Master of all creation. They ask to be delivered from illness, tribulation, danger, death - for themselves or their nearest and dearest. They value the possibility of obtaining a concrete bounty that is recognized by the world - so-called happiness: a tranquil family, a close friend, good children, a fortunate situation, a nice job, health, success in some affair or other.
But it is not only earthly needs that attract man to God. Many people realize that all material things must be firmly placed in God’s hands, and one should not be too concerned with them. Everything else “will be added,” as the Lord said. And so, with this belief, many of the faithful seek and ask in prayer only for spiritual treasures: for prayer itself, for patience, love, humility, meekness, faith, purity, truth. They ask to learn and hear God’s will and, having heard it, to fulfill it. Afterwards, knowing God’s will, they ask for strength to give themselves over to this will.
Most worthy of commendation is a lofty, non-material aim of prayer, especially prayers for others. But even when people approach prayer like children, asking for their simple material needs, they will receive the fruit of their prayers, although it may often differ from their request.
The highest prayer is that in which a person forgets all his needs, even the loftiest ones, burning with a single desire - to get as close as possible to the Lord, to place himself at His feet, to give Him all his heart. This is sublime love and sublime prayer, when one wishes to live only in the Lord, to love Him, to hide in His nearness, to be filled with His indescribable love.
A search for prayer solely for the sake of prayer can uplift all human appeals to God, can inspire each prayer. The earthly need for it is only of secondary importance. The heart of prayer is joy - to speak, to communicate, to pour out all one’s anxieties, all one’s doubts, all one’s joys - to the One and Only, All-loving, All-knowing and Wise Father.
A child’s prattle is pleasing to Him. The Lord accepts all human appeals, no matter how small or insignificant, if a person’s heart becomes filled with joy and awe as it stands before the Master. All that is small becomes great in the process of being presented to the Lord. All that is imperfect becomes perfect.
Do not be embarrassed by the magnitude or insignificance of your entreaties, but seek, first of all, not that for which you are asking, but the One Whom you are asking. Only those appeals are unworthy, which love the Lord less than the thing or matter which is being requested. If you love the Lord above all, then all your appeals shall be blessed, both great and small, and all your requests shall be fulfilled; and the one which, by the will of God, is not fulfilled, will bring you greater benefit than the one which is fulfilled.. And always there remains in our hearts the great fruit of prayer, - we ascend into heaven, to the Creator of lights, and the divine spark of the grace of the Seraphim fills our hearts…