Recently Tomas McDonald interviewed me for his blog, God and the Machine, on the subject of prayer.
On Facebook, Tom commented: “Jimmy’s reflections on prayer across time may prove that he is indeed the first ginger Time Lord.”
Here’s the interview . . .
Every Monday in How I Pray, I ask various Catholics about their prayer routines, their prayer lives, and their experience of prayer. This week I’m joined by the great apologist Jimmy Akin, whose clear and irenic explanations of Catholic teaching are always a welcome oasis in the often-fractious world of online Catholicism.
Who are you?
Ooo. One of the classic questions! You can keep asking it, over and over, peeling off layer after layer to get to the core of a person’s sense of self–and really annoy him in the process.
To give you the top-level answer, my name is Jimmy Akin, and I’m a Catholic apologist.
I assume you’d like a fuller answer than just what you’d say in the introduction to the post, so what else can I say? Let’s see . . . I’m a blogger, podcaster, square dance caller, dance instructor, former private detective, former Chinese cook, comic book fan, science fiction fan, Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and a generally curious guy.
What is your vocation?
I am a widower, and I haven’t (yet) remarried, so I don’t presently have a vocation–at least in the proper sense that the Church has historically used the term.
All of the baptized have a general vocation to live in a Christian manner, but some are called to live that out in a specific way corresponding to matrimony, holy orders, or the consecrated life.
If I am ever so fortunate as to marry again, I will have the vocation of being a husband. That, however, would require me to overcome my natural shyness with the opposite sex and find a good woman who’s willing to put up with me.
What is your prayer routine for an average day?
Most of my prayers are spontaneous. I say many short prayers throughout the day, particularly when I am alone.
I have never calculated the average amount of time per day that I spend praying, but it is a substantial amount–comparable to performing more formal devotions.
How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle those moments when you don’t?
One of my common failings in prayer, like many people, is feeling that if I don’t say it “just right” then I need to say it again. This is a scruple, and like any scruple, it needs to be resisted.
I combat it by remembering Jesus’ statements that God already knows what we need and that we don’t need to go on stammering in prayer like the Gentiles do, thinking they need to wear down the deity with their prayers.
Though I observe my own rule imperfectly, I try to observe the rule, “Say the prayer once and trust God with any imperfections.”
I also try to keep my prayers from becoming purely formal by moving beyond the words and focusing on trusting God. I think of St. Paul’s remarks about how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, even when we don’t know how we should pray.
I think about the Centurion whose servant Jesus healed. Most people would have wanted Jesus to come and heal the servant in person, but the Centurion realized this was not necessary. He had faith that Jesus could do it from a distance. There is something similar with prayer.
For most of us, most of the time, we are reassured by using words, but prayer isn’t ultimately about giving God information. He already knows what we’re going to say. The words are a help to us, but not to him. They are, therefore, not essential. What’s important is not finding the right words but opening yourself to God and placing your faith in him. I think that exercising this kind of faith in God pleases him in the way that the faith of the Centurion did.
Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?
When I have something really important that I need to pray for, I say the Memorare.
I also have a special devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, and I find the Chaplet of Divine Mercy particularly moving.
Do you have a place, habit, or way of praying?
I pray everywhere. Especially on airplanes.
When I pray, I try to recognize that it isn’t just me or the specific people I am praying for who are facing the situation I am praying about. There are people all over the world who are facing the same situations and who need prayer just as much.
As a result, I try to “universalize” my prayers when I can. If I hear an ambulance go by, I will often say a quick prayer “for all who are involved” (meaning, the injured, the emergency medical technicians, and everyone affected by the situation). I then try to add, “and for all in similar situations.”
Do you use any tools or sacramentals?
If I am praying the Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy by myself, rather than in a group, I commonly use mp3s to help me keep from getting distracted.
What is your relationship with the Rosary?
I don’t pray it as much as I’d like. When I do, I visualize the places in Israel where the mysteries occurred, and I imagine the Virgin Mary standing there. Visiting Israel and seeing the places where the mysteries occurred really deepened my experience of the Rosary.
Are there any books or spiritual works that are important to your devotional life?
My personal spirituality is bibliocentric, so the most important book for my devotional life is the Bible. It is when I’m thinking about and wrestling with the meaning of the biblical texts that I have the most spiritual insights.
What is your most recent spiritual or devotional reading?
The Gospel of Mark. I recently went through Mark verse-by-verse, and there are certain moments in Mark that just leapt out at me, full of meaning and resonance with situations in life.
Who couldn’t feel for the woman with the issue of blood (undoubtedly a gynecological problem) who was ritually unclean and thus forbidden to touch anyone, yet she secretly touched Jesus with faith that she would be healed. When he demanded to know who had done this, she was undoubtedly terrified–wondering if he might “take back” the miracle she had “stolen” by not asking first. Would he even put a curse on her and make her situation worse than it had been? But when she fessed up, he blessed her and sent her on her way. This reflects how God is willing to be merciful to us even when we approach him imperfectly. Our imperfections are not stronger than God’s mercy, as long as we seek him.
Similarly, who could not feel for Peter when he breaks down in tears after having denied the Lord–a reflection of the healing tears we all experience at times when we realize we have betrayed the Lord.
Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?
I don’t know how much I think in those terms. I think a lot about what God wants me to do and how he would have me approach a situation–in prayer or otherwise. In doing that, Jesus Christ is the obvious first point of reference, but the question “What would Jesus do?” can sometimes be misleading, and we can often deceive ourselves about it.
There’s a famous saying among Bible scholars: “By their Lives of Christ you shall know them.” This saying arose after people noticed that, whenever a scholar wrote a Life of Christ (a biography of him), the portrait he painted to Jesus tended to reflect the scholar’s own predilections. People tend to read themselves and their preferences into Jesus, and this is a tendency that needs to be resisted, so other reference points are valuable as well.
One reference point for me is Pope Benedict XVI. His thought and manner of proceeding have had a profound influence on me, and I often find myself looking at spiritual questions in light of what I think he would say about them. Often this calls me to take a more charitable and compassionate view of them than I might initially be inclined to.
Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences as a result of your prayer life?
Yes. When my wife, Renee, was dying, she had not been in touch with her father for twenty years–not since she was a little girl.
I was praying for her, and I was hoping that she would reconcile with him before she died. At one point we were driving to a medical appointment, and she said, “Do you think I should get in touch with him?”
“I think he would want to know,” I replied.
So we placed a call to his home in another state and left a message on his answering machine.
He called back something like an hour later. It turned out he was not at home, but a guy he had housesitting had heard the message and called him–and he was visiting a nearby town in Arkansas, where we were!
The odds of him being so close, and getting the message when he wasn’t at home, and being able to come and be reconciled with her so swiftly in the short time she had left was a true blessing and something that I have always regarded as an amazing act of Providence and an answer to prayer.
There have been similar divine “coincidences” that have happened at other points in my life. They don’t happen often, but when they do, it is profoundly meaningful to me.
I would like to see _________________ answer these questions.
Stephen Greydanus. He and I have discussed prayer often, and I know he will have interesting things to say.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to talk a little bit about ways of prayer that we don’t often think about.
Usually, we are focused on specific people and the situations they are facing, but there are so many people out there who either have no one praying for them or, even if they do, who would welcome our prayers.
Sometimes I pray for everyone in the world who would like my prayers. I also pray for those who would accept them (even if they wouldn’t have asked for them), and for those who need prayer (even if they wouldn’t want prayer at the moment).
When I am in particular need, I employ a variation on this, not only asking all the saints and angels to intercede for me, but also asking God to apply to my case the prayers of those who are praying for people out in the world, generically.
I also ask God to apply the good will of those who would pray about my situation if they knew about it. It strikes me that if a person has good will such that they would pray about something if they knew about it then there is an implicit kind of prayer contained in the person’s good will, and when I’m in need, I sometimes ask God to apply this to my case. I then immediately flip this around and pray for everyone in similar need out there.
Another type of prayer we don’t often think about is prayer across time. This is something C. S. Lewis talks about in his writings on prayer. While we may be bound by time, God is not. From the eternal now in which he exists, seeing all of history at once, God can hear my prayer from one point in time and apply it to any other point in time, whether past or future. As a result, it is legitimate in principle for us to pray for people in the past and the future.
The only case I can think of where it would not be legitimate is when we know the outcome of a particular situation and what God allowed to happen then. Thus I should not pray that a soldier who I know died in World War I should not die (since I know God allowed him to), but I might pray that, in the last moments of his life back in 1918, he turned to God and was saved.
Further, we have no idea what realms exist in God’s creation. There could be beings in need of prayer in countless times and places that we have no idea about, but they are all part of God’s domain, and so sometimes I add a qualifier to my prayers, asking that God will apply them to those “across all times and worlds”–anywhere in God’s domain–where they might do good.
I’ve even thought about composing a memorizable prayer to Jesus Christ, Pantokrator Kosmou (Greek, “Ruler of all the cosmos”) incorporating this concept, though thus far I haven’t done so.