When Prayer is all we are left with
‘…From the fish’s belly Jonah prayed to God…’ (Jonah 2, 1)
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of trying to prove that there is a God; or of trying to provide a description of God; or of trying to explain that if there is a God why are things as they are. Within the Christian tradition alone, for 2,000 years and more there have been those who have tried to do just this – and the conclusion?
Proving there is a God – impossible…describing God – inadequate…explaining things – unsatisfactory.
Why? Because God can never be subject to nor the object of an intellectual enquiry. Rather, the Christian faith dares us to believe that God only becomes real to us if and when we are prepared to acknowledge that it is possible for us to engage directly with God. Having faith, being prepared to believe.
The way this is done? Through what we call ‘prayer’. Not so much the regular, repetitive, ritualised recitation of familiar words and phrases – remember that the so-called ‘Lord’s Prayer’, The ‘Our Father’, should be regarded as a template by which we construct our own private, personal devotions – no, prayer; real, powerful and effective prayer is no more, yet no less than our giving vent to our feelings, and our emotions; crying out beyond ourselves in the fervent belief, even the desperate hope that there is a God who is listening.
And this brings us to Jonah: there is no need for us to be blindsided by wondering just where he was at the time: he was where he was, and it was from there that he cried out to God – from there that he prayed to God. And that is, first and foremost, what makes prayer what it is. The prayer Jonah prays is determined by the situation in which Jonah finds himself. The mess he was in; he had to sort out why and what for. He imagined it was God’s fault; why else would he be in such a predicament, but then he comes to realise that actually, it was his own fault and that because of what he had done, he could have no complaint – either with regard to what was happening to him there and then, or if God, as a consequence of what he had done, chose to leave him to suffer the consequences accordingly.
‘…I thought I was banished from Your sight and should never again look towards Your Holy Temple…’ But then, even as he is forced to accept the level of culpability that is his, even as Jonah is confronted by the awful truth that there is no one to blame but him, so he is awakened to the fact that, ‘…You brought me up, Lord my God, alive from the pit. As my senses failed, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer reached You in Your holy temple…’ Prayer confronts us with the awful truth concerning who we really are…It holds a mirror up to each one of us and dares us to see ourselves as we really are; and then, as if by a miracle, the mirror dissolves into a window and we see beyond ourselves; but what do we see?
Not God, no one has seen God – God remains hidden from our sight – ‘tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee – no, what we see through the window is a reflection of ourselves, but now not as we see ourselves, but rather as God sees us – ‘Though our sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow’. Prayer reminds us of who we are, what we have become, who we ought to be, what we can be. And God allows us the time and the space necessary for us to engage in this ‘journey of self-discovery’, a journey that ends with us realising that only God could have made this possible for us. For Jonah, this journey, illustrated by his having been thrown overboard, and swallowed by a great fish, caused him to realise that even though he had sought to thwart God’s intention, nevertheless God would not be thwarted as far as His care and concern for Jonah was concerned.
‘…I with hymns of praise shall offer sacrifice to You; what I have vowed I shall fulfil. Victory is the Lords...’ It is when Jonah comes to this point, the realisation that in spite of what he had become, rather than God abandon him to his fate, he was still precious to God, that the ‘journey’ ends. ‘…The Lord commanded the fish and it spewed Jonah out on the dry land…’ On the night of His arrest, trial and crucifixion Jesus went to pray – a ‘journey of self-discovery’ unlike any other – Does it have to be like this, isn’t there another way, but if not, ‘Your will be done’.