“Aren’t you responsible for praying?” I often hear that sentence during the smalltalk receptions after clerical events and discussions. As a priest, I can usually play cool and breeze past those interjections – but sometimes, I’m tempted to reply: “Why me? Every Christian should feel responsible, including you.” Sometimes those replies cause astonishment. Most mostly, the casual conversation turns more substantial as it investigates the reason (or unreason) of prayer.
It is rare to see someone discussing prayer outside of the church. Sometimes, it becomes a topic of TV talk show discussions. But as recently as the 1990s, many guests would respond, when prodded about their relationship to praying, that “it’s too private. I won’t say.” Today, I sense that many celebrities are more comfortable to speak openly and honestly about praying. I like that.
I like that we talk about prayer at all, even when it frequently carries negative connotations – especially during those casual smalltalk discussions. “What use does it have to pray when God does not prevent bad things from happening?”, many ask me. This question highlights the infantile image of God that many adults have still internalized and that casts God as a divine slot machine: As long as you put in the right amount of prayer, you’ll get the desired outcomes. “I prayed to God but still got a bad grade”, a school child might say. We respond: “Why should God be held responsible for your laziness and lack of exam preparation?”
But prayer can become a pressure valve for the soul especially when times are tough: During natural disasters, after amok killing sprees or accidents. Shocked relatives or a traumatized nation can unweight the load they feel by praying. We know that a prayer will not bring back loved ones who have passed away – but still, we pray.
I am still moved by a service held in a school where I once taught. Two days after a high school massacre in Germany in 2009, my school’s chapel was overrun by students. For every shooting victim, a candle was lit and placed on the altar. “One for the shooter as well”, I said. “Really?”, asked a student? “Yes”, I responded without further discussion. The candle was lit, and we later discussed it in class.
To me, praying is akin to talking with God, just like we might talk to a good friend. Straight from the heart, completely honest – just like a conversation among good friends. This is especially true when we lament and ask in desparation: “Why?” Just remember Jesus’s prayer on Good Friday, when he calls down from the cross (psalm 22): “My God, my God, why have you left me?” Prayer can be very intensive, and we are not alone in seeking consolation in prayer. My students understood that we can pray for perpetrators as well, filled with the hope that God knows what drives someone to commit atrocities. As a priest, it is my task to pray for those who are usually forgotten and left out. In that sense, the smalltalk discussions hit on a crucial point: Yes, I am responsible for praying.
But the invitation is open to everyone all the time: Seek the conversation with God, the connection to a higher power, the ability to unload the weight that you carry through the world. God might not always respond as we would desire it – but it will always be good for us.