|Id Quod Volo - dogs are very good at it|
In one of the scurrilously brilliant Julian and Sandy sketches from the 1960s radio series Round The Horne, Kenneth Horne visits the Bona Gift Boutique. As he browses the shelves, Hugh Paddick's character Julian counsels (in a tone which suggests that this is part of his philosophy of life), 'If you don't see what you want, Ducky, ask for it!'
Useful advice too (oh dear, this sounds like a particularly clunky sermon-opener!) for the life of prayer - or is it? St Ignatius Loyola tells us that one of the preludes to any time of prayer should be to 'ask for what I desire' - id quod volo. Of course, within the structure of the Spiritual Exercises we are told what this should be: joy, sorrow, compassion, etc. depending on where we are in the dynamic of the Exercises. If you don't see the grace you need in your life, ask for it. All well and good. But what about the things we actually desire? Is it all right to ask for them?
St Teresa of Avila says somewhere that petition - asking for things - is a good practice for beginners in prayer. The trouble is, when we read something like that, we can tend to imagine a kind of hierarchy of prayer; we don't notice that St Teresa includes herself among the 'beginners'. Naturally we will want to explore what we see as the enticing higher planes of the spiritual life. We become bored and impatient with the foothills - fine for children and new Christians, but we feel we should be capable of better.
Actually, I believe God is everywhere in the landscape. Anything, if it is brought into dialogue with God, can become real and precious prayer - even the humblest faltering petition. If I hear suddenly that someone I love is ill, or has been in an accident, I'm not likely to sit calmly down and do some Lectio Divina. My instinctive prayer will probably be nothing but a garbled 'please, please...' That's prayer which is real, from the heart. A surrendered silence where I can listen to what God says in response may come later, but it's not better or higher prayer, or prayer more pleasing to God - just different. After all, who was it said we should become like little children (who know all about asking for things, and not so much about doing it elegantly or subtly), and who taught his friends a prayer full of petitions?
Yes, but... Prayer for healing or forgiveness is of course a good thing. What if 'that which I desire' is not quite so good? Am I still supposed to ask God for it? What if my desire right now is that X, who has hurt me, should meet with an unfortunate accident involving a sewage tanker; or that - well, you can supply your own examples: I don't want to give too much away about mine! When St Teresa said petitionary prayer was good for beginners she told us why: because when we hear ourselves speak our desires out loud we can allow God to change and purify them. After all, God already knows the depths of our hearts; it's when we suppress or deny what's there that it can fester and grow out of proportion. Shame is far more destructive than any desire.
And, before Teresa, St Augustine had come to realise that beneath all the disordered desires of his colourful youth was the one longing 'to love and be loved'. It's true for us all, under even our most shabby desires. God will help us discover that truth, and answer our longing, if only we tell him about it.