Simply put: prayer is the meeting of our desires with God’s Desire. Although God meets us with an infinitely simple Desire, we are not simple. That is why more than one approach to God is necessary for us. There are five fundamental ways of prayer which Church tradition teaches, ways that give us a deeper immersion of our desires into God’s Desire. My professor of ascetical theology, Donald Parsons said that just as we need a balanced diet in our eating habits, we need a balanced diet of prayer. The five kinds of prayer give us this balanced diet.
Petitionary prayer is about asking God to give us something for ourselves. This is often considered the lowest form of prayer because it is considered selfish. Why should I want anything for me, myself and I? Well, God wants to give gifts to those of us who knock for the door to be opened. For that matter, God wants to give us gifts even when we don’t knock at all.
The thing is, we are filled with what James Alison calls our “smelly” desires whether we like it or not because we are made that way by God. Since we have these desires, we have to do something with them. Renouncing them is one of the things we can do, but we aren’t renouncing anything if we don’t know what we are renouncing.
The importance of petitionary prayer is that we bring our desires to God. In so doing, we increase our awareness of what these desires are, those that are smelly, those that smell like roses, and those that really stink. We may not like having our stinkier desires but we all have them and if we don’t become aware of them, they will rule our lives without our knowing it. Of course, bringing our desires to God is tricky because we don’t always know what we want. What we think we want does not always turn out to be what we really wanted as all of us have found out many times when we did get what we wanted.
Knowing our desires is further complicated by mimetic desire, our tendency to desire through the desires of others. As we notice how our desires are entwined with those of others, we also become more aware of their rivalrous elements. For example, if we pray for our favorite baseball team to win the championship, we quickly realize that God is not going to play favorites and the best and/or luckiest team is going to win. That is, God’s Desire is not for one team or the other win but for everybody to enjoy the game no matter who wins and who loses. If we can’t enjoy a game when we lose, that’s our problem. The same applies to more serious issues in life such as personal relationships, especially those of a romantic nature. As we bring petitionary prayers of this sort to God, we find at the base of God’s Desire a will toward freedom. This is the freedom for the baseball to bounce the way it chooses and the freedom for people to react to us as they choose. It is often said that God answers a prayer with “No” and that can be the case, but not necessarily. Since God gives the rest of the world the same freedom God gives us, not everything is going to pan out the way God’s Desire might have it. The bombs dropping all over the world in spite of all our prayers that they cease are clear evidence of that.
Avoiding petitionary prayer for fear of being greedy may prove a greater danger than asking for the wrong things. It could mean we give less importance to ourselves than God does. If we think we are beyond caring about what we get in life, it is all the more important to search our hearts. Chances are we are hoping for many things, but are denying these very hopes and then congratulating ourselves on our detachment. More serious, we may be depending on ourselves for getting things in life, and not depending on God.
If we bring our desires to God in prayer, and let God sort them out, we gain some freedom from these desires. God gives us a handle to make freer choices as to what we really want and how they can more constructively interact with the desires of others. We might start out asking for a DVD Player and end up asking for help with a deeper need. That is, God educates us in learning to live with our desires when we bring ourselves close to God’s Desire in prayer. Far from being self-centered, petitionary prayer brings us out of the closed world of our natural desires and the even more tightly closed world of our rivalrous desires into the open Desires of God.