We have all heard the saying, “prayer changes things.” If you google “prayer changes things,” you can download posters, and pictures and blogposts about how an active prayer life changes “things.” Because that’s what we want, isn’t it? For our petitions, requests and pleas to God to change things out there--around us—difficult situations, obstinate, misguided people, and certainly war-torn countries like Ukraine; we want God to solve our problems, to give us the answer, and to effect the outcomes we desire.
The issue, if this is our only view of prayer, is that it treats God like a holy vending machine: if we deposit enough requests, adequate petitions, with enough faith and the right attitude, God will dispense the goodies. A colleague of mine who worked on a college campus had a student come into her office crying over the death of her father to cancer. She said she prayed and prayed for God to heal her dad and it did not work. Her Christian friends told her she did not have enough faith. While offering prayer petitions is an important part of our prayer life, we can clearly see the limits of having only a limited vending machine model for prayer.
In the story of the Transfiguration, we see a completely different view of what happens in prayer. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain to pray. Jesus does this repeatedly in his ministry—often going off alone to pray. If prayer for Jesus was simply asking God for outcomes, you would think that at the top of his list would be that his disciples would start to understand his mission and purpose! That they would start to get it! And that they would be able to stay awake during prayer! But if these were part of Jesus’ prayers, God does not seem to pay them any heed, nor answer them in the least.
Instead, Jesus goes to a quiet place on the mountaintop where there are no distractions so he can commune with God, become one with God, experience unity, strength, and divine love in the embrace of God. And “while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
Jesus’ prayers don’t fundamentally change God. Jesus’ prayer changes him. Prayer changes Jesus. Prayer transforms Jesus into his fully resurrected glory. Then Moses and Elijah, in their resurrected glory appear with him, reassuring him, strengthening him, embracing him—giving him all he needs to walk down the mountain and toward the cross. Moses and Elijah’s appearance conveys a message that Jesus can trust God to get him through his departure into death and back into this glorious state because God was faithful to Moses and to Elijah and the entire witness of the Scripture they represent.
Jesus shows us that prayer is not about what we are doing for God, but rather, it is fundamentally about what God is doing for us—God is giving us the divine self in love, in strength, in glory, in whatever it is we need for the present moment. Prayer is much more than simply making petitions to God. Yes, make your requests and needs known to God—ask for the desires of your heart, the changes you seek, your prayers for the sick, and certainly, please pray for a change in Putin’s heart and for the people of Ukraine, for petitions for peace, but just do not stop there. Prayer is also to remain. Remain, in silence, and wait; wait for God to love you, stay for God to change you, and shape for your divine purpose.
For prayer is not designed to change “things” out there—prayer changes us. Prayer is about what God wants to do in us and through us, and making ourselves available for God to do this work.
We all have times or season when we avoid prayer—maybe we are afraid to say the wrong thing, maybe we do not know what to say—now you know that’s it’s not about what you do, so I hope you are relieved of that fear! Or maybe we do not want to face the ways in which God will change us if we give God the chance. Maybe we want to act like Peter and build a dwelling where we are, so we can stay exactly the same, and never have to engage in the parts of ourselves we do not want to look at or give up. Then we do not have to figure out how to bring the glory of the immanently loving God to this messy and violent world.
I get it. I have avoided prayer myself at times. But then I notice again how lousy I am on my own. How anxious. How controlling. How much I want to live by my own agenda.
And I remember, that is the very reason Jesus went frequently to commune with God. Because prayer and communing with God opens him to the Holy Spirit, which enables every powerful act of Jesus in the world –from his Baptism, to healings, to the calling of the 12 disciples, to enduring the temptations, to speaking the truth. Jesus receives the strength and Holy Spirit that takes him through the cross, to conquer death and back to life again. It all comes out of what God does for him prayer—it comes from showing up for God to love him, strengthen him, empower him, fill him with the radiant light of grace.
Carmelite nun Ruth Barrows describes meditative prayer that allows God to change us in this way:
What is the core, the central message of the revelation of Jesus? Surely it is of the unconditional love of God for us, for each one of us: God, the unutterable, incomprehensible Mystery, the Reality of all reality, the Life of all life. And this means that divine Love desires to communicate Its Holy Self to us. Nothing less! This is God’s irrevocable will and purpose; it is the reason why everything that is, is, and why each of us exists. We are here to receive this ineffable, all-transforming, all beatifying Love.Jesus invites us into this kind of all-transforming, all-beautifying Love that he experienced with God in prayer—so we can become vehicles of his radiant light in the world. Filled with the power of his Holy Spirit, the luminous love of God radiates from our hearts so that others might experience the transcendent, loving presence of the reality of God.*
And how much does our world need this love now. Our world needs the message that Jesus has defeated death itself, not just the current death-dealing powers that be. In the face of war, of increasing anxiety, drug use, accidents, burn-out, insomnia, and other symptoms of pandemic trauma, people you encounter on a daily basis—whether friends, family, acquaintances, or strangers at the store—will receive hope and salve to the soul because of your light, your luminous presence when you are transfigured by God’s love in prayer.
Mother Theresa said: “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us, and we change things.”
So, try five minutes of quiet a day with God this Lent. And if you already do that, expand it to ten minutes. Allow yourselves to be loved by Love, so you can be changed by prayer, transfigured by beautifying love, transformed by God’s glory into a radiant light!
*See Fr. Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation for Feb. 14, 2022 from the Center for Action and Contemplation or Essence of Prayer by Ruth Barrows (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2006).
Image Copyright. Anonymous. Transfiguration, from , a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.