If God wants us to ask him for what we need, what precisely is it that we need?
We pray for those things which it is our duty to ask for what we should not hesitate to ask, neither for ourselves, for our friends, and strangers, and yes, even for enemies…If we pray correctly…we pray for nothing except that which makes up the Lord’s Prayer.
from St. Augustine Answers 101 Questions on Prayer by Fr. Ermatinger
When we pray, we are to pray to God. We may pray to God through a mediator, asking them to obtain for us this or that, all the while understanding that they obtain these things, through prayer, from God and it is He that bestows such things. When we pray to, or through, a mediator, we are recognizing the Household of God, His Kingdom, and His sovereignty over them. Part of God’s plan of us receiving Him and praising Him for all eternity is that this is done by our being in concert, in choir, with all those that He has called and chosen. We may offer prayer and praise to God directly but when we do so to, and through, the saints we do so in a way that both honors Him, the creator and giver of good things, of which the saints are included, we already begin to participate in these choirs into which we are being inducted. Truly by prayer do we receive the good things of God.
When we pray, we pray for those who we are asking of God to receive His good things. By prayer, God grants His good things. Therefore, the question is more appropriately to whom does God want to grant His good things? To those that ask is a good place to start. This includes the petitioner directly. It includes those who have asked the petitioner to pray for them. It includes those who have not asked – for in knowing our wants, needs, and lackings we know that those around us likewise are impoverished and need the good things of God. This is known through simple observation of our neighbors but also through awareness of the human condition.
It should be obvious that we should pray for our friends, our neighbors, and even the strangers around us. If we see their wants, charity compels us to find the means to comfort them. What better comfort than petitioning the Good God, who truly can provide for their needs? The need to pray for our enemies is less obvious because our concerns regarding them tend to focus on our need to not have them bring us harm. They too are beggars and in great need of God’s good things. God’s will is that all should receive His good things, even if they, in the end, choose not to. In praying for our enemies, not just that their plans be thwarted, but that they truly receive the good things of God, we begin to take on the attitude of God towards the sinner and recognize the sinner’s lackings, sufferings, and how his sin has made his condition one of great poverty. If we can see in our enemies how God has created them to receive His good things, and desire that they should so receive, we have made great progress in detaching ourselves from the world and have begun to see how all things are dependent upon God and that the good and ills that flow in and out of our lives are for His purposes and meant for us to pray and praise His name.
What should we pray for? God’s good things. We can approach the answer to what is “good” and what are the “things” from the point of view of human reason, but if it is the only way that we do, we have not actually moved beyond an anthropocentric answer – we are still locked to a human answer to the question and have not made qualitative progress from the pagans who pray for rain to come upon their fields because they desire the good of full bellies. Those are human concerns and things humanly deemed good, even if with perfect human wisdom and reason. What it really takes to know what to pray for is revelation – God has to tell us. This is why the grace of Faith is necessary to undertake prayer. It takes Faith to ask what to pray and Faith to accept that God has answered. This answer is the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. It is why St. Augustine says, Whoever prayer for anything not contained in the Lord’s Prayer, prayers in such a way that is either improper or, at least, unspiritual. What they are doing is, in some degree, abandoning faith in His answer and returning to human reasoning – recreating the sin of Adam by assuming that they are the arbiters of good and evil, of what should be and what should not be given by God.
The Trinity Adored by the Heavenly Choir, Workshop of Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1600