26 April 2021
26 Apr 2021

The Prayer of Question

© photo credit: Ric Rodrigues

In the midst of a pandemic, more or less all of us, sooner or later, have asked ourselves "how come?", and as believers we have addressed to God for an invocation or a supplication: "but why Lord? Do I lack faith if I try to understand?". Or we have been disappointed, when God - at least it seems - did not answer, "but then, does He really exist?"

by  Luca Garbinetto
Testimoni

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A Navajo (of the Native Americans of America) chant reads, “Man is a question on the road!”.

This description of a human being sounds suggestive and meaningful, in a time when we would like to have answers and certainties, and we insistently ask for them to the Lord (at least those who believe, but sometimes even those who do not believe…). In the midst of the pandemic, more or less all of us, sooner or later, have asked ourselves “how come?”, and as believers we have turned to God for an invocation or a supplication: “but why Lord? When will all of this pass?” At times we have felt guilty, for having addressed to God a cry considered perhaps disrespectful: “is it that I lack faith – we have said to ourselves – if I try to understand?”. Or we were disappointed, because for the umpteenth time, even in this serious context, God – at least it seems so – did not answer: “but then, does He really exist?” And to the question is added….

To tell the truth, the crisis we are going through has only highlighted something that was already there before. We human beings don’t like things very much that get out of hand, that they are not under our control. Especially us human beings from rich countries, drunk on power (i.e. opportunities) and very advanced in technology.

What is interesting is that Jesus, for his part, does not ask us to have everything clear, nor even less to find the solution to everything. His invitation sounds rather paradoxical: “If you ask me for something in my name, I will do it. […] If you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.” (Jn 14:13; 16:23) And if we care to reiterate that “it is not true, I have asked and He has not answered,” here is the surprising statement of the Lord: “So far you have not asked [yet] anything in my name,” so “ask and you shall obtain, that your joy may be full” (Jn 16:24). It seems, then, that there may be the illusion of having asked, or the confusion of a question that perhaps demanded a certain kind of response, but did not realize it was receiving another. In fact, a question is, by definition, a risk: it may go unanswered, or it may get a different response than we had hoped for. Perhaps this is why sometimes we prefer – perhaps without realizing it – to avoid asking it. Even to God.

In short, even the Gospel seems to confirm the intuition of the Navajo brothers: to be happy, we need to ask, rather than having answers!

There is demand and demand

Those who ask allow themselves, first of all, the luxury of being fragile, of recognizing that they are in need. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in an almost contemplative passage, confirms to us that “by the prayer of asking, we express the consciousness of our relationship with God,” so that “the question is already a return to him.” (CCC 2629). The movement intrinsic to the question, even if it were initially only a movement of venting generated by fear and anger, is still a first turn to the Lord. Therefore, it implies from the beginning the conscious choice to enter into a relationship with Him.

It is also true; however, that there are questions that are ineffective, in the sense not so much that they do not receive an answer, but that they do not achieve the objective of the relationship. These are questions that presuppose an attitude contrary to that of trust necessary for a relationship to be established with the other person, and also with God. We already realize in our own experience that some ways of posing and asking questions block the path of growth and impede adherence to reality, instead of favoring personal maturation.

The same happens on a personal level. Questions that poorly point toward the goal are, for example:

-The question of the skeptic, that is, of the one who asks not to hear the answer but to indirectly demonstrate disinterest in seeking it. The skeptic asks without the desire either to understand or to relate, and feeds the ‘chronic doubt’ of those who mask themselves behind inadequate data and resources to confirm their lack of responsibility. The skeptic is cynical, indifferent to the other, and uses questioning as a subtle weapon of self-defense. The Sadducees, for example, were very skeptical people, ostensibly religious, but actually materialistic.

-The question that tests the other, often used by the scribes and Pharisees against Jesus. The purpose is to catch the interlocutor in the act, so a ruse is devised in order to set a trap through improper readings of reality.

-Egocentric demand is that which aims to obtain for oneself according to one’s own interests and personal gains, both at the material level and at the level of self-esteem. One seeks wealth, approval, or one wants to facilitate the effort of the search by “stealing” from others answers and proposals to take possession improperly.

Be careful, therefore, not to fill even our prayer with these essentially arrogant attitudes, incapable of recognizing our constitutive poverty.

On the ground of trust

The question itself, therefore, when it is authentic, moves on the terrain of trust. This is fertile ground, or rather, fertile. As a matter of fact, the movement of the question is substantially the opening to relationship, the recognition of our constitutive incompleteness, the willingness to become what we are: dialogical beings.

There is in us a natural experience of tension, between the desire for fullness and eternity on the one hand, and the inevitable and often painful experience of being limited, unable to achieve on our own what we seek. The truest nature of the human creature lies in this irreducible lack, which translates into nostalgia, search and passion. Other animate beings do not ask questions, at most they make requests (with their behaviors, without the gift of speech). We, on the other hand, are truly ourselves to the extent that we welcome the necessary presence of another, to the point of recognizing that there must also be an Other who goes beyond merely earthly questions.

Therefore, when Jesus invites us to ask, he urges us to be ourselves, without fear. Because within every authentic question, there is another implicit question, which in some way precedes it and makes it possible. And it is the question of our own identity and that of the other. In order to ask, in fact, I turn to someone, and this someone is revealed to me in the dynamics of the answer. It is as if by asking we were testing the terrain of the relationship, to verify if it is reliable, and more or less consciously we look, we search for the face of the person we are questioning, and we ask him a fundamental question: “but who are you?”.

What do you mean, are you trustworthy? Can I trust, can I believe in you? Won’t you hurt me if I open up with my painful, unexplored vulnerability?”. To ask is in fact to uncover oneself, to reveal oneself, to lower one’s defenses, to allow the other person access to one’s intimacy, which is fundamentally nakedness. To ask is to remove a few layers of the fig leaves that covered our ancestors, afraid and blocked by the idea that the other, and God in particular, could be a threat and a danger to them.

This is why it is fundamental, in Jesus’ invitation, to turn our gaze to the one who hears the cry of our question: he is a loving and caring Father, a guardian who does not abandon his children, a God who gives us the Spirit even before we ask him, to make us experience the beauty of being protected and sustained by a love that is totally gratuitous. To discover the truth of God as a Father of mercy, as Jesus reveals it to us, is already to receive the answer that matters most to the existential question inherent in every other question.

No, we have nothing to fear, although we remain with open question marks….

It is curious, in fact, graphically speaking, that the orthographic sign indicating the question is a curved opening movement, unlike the full stop or the exclamation point, which seems to place a stumbling block or an impassable wall to the path. The question mark leaves a quest open. In Spanish, it is customary to put the inverted dot at the beginning of the sentence in question, in this case the question. In this way, they are found as two complementary hooks, which symbolically could suggest a mutual hooking.

Will it not be too much to imagine, then, that God also answers our question with a hand that opens and reaches out to us, not to give a peremptory and definitive answer, but to hold ours and to set out together on our quest?

God the Father is not the Lord of solutions, but of joy: this is the true answer to our questions, which will no longer exist only when we stand totally in his presence, overflowing inundated with his joy: “So you too, now, are in pain; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice and no one will be able to take away your joy. On that day you will no longer ask me for anything.” (Jn 16:22-23a).

Perhaps God Himself, more than a peremptory and definitive answer, is Himself a question of relationship. For this reason, who knows, the Spirit is familiar with the groaning in us and coming “to the aid of our weakness, because we do not even know what it is good to ask” (8:26). He knows; and He asks, in our place, for us.

The rivulets of demand

The essential question about our identity, which becomes a vocation when it is asked of the One who stands in relationship with us, is also linked to all the healthy and wholesome questions that weave our day with vivacity. And like cherries, one leads to another. Daily life, in fact, is an icon of our intimate nature as creatures open to the infinite.

So we ask and address various kinds of questions to others.

-We ask in order to obtain, when we need something, when we are unable to obtain what we need for our growth. There is nothing wrong with this: man also lives on bread. The essential thing is to remember that not even the sweat of one’s brow is enough to earn it, since everything is a gift: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt 6:11).

-We ask in order to know, to understand, and thus enter a more rational, but above all spiritual dimension of our being. The person, fundamentally, seeks meaning and meaning in existence. The wise question, with which the Old Testament is imbued and which Jesus reveals in the scandal of the Cross, springs from a heart capable of wonder, curious because it is still a child, accustomed to wonder, never presumptuous. Science is a fascinating expression of this, but within things there is an unfathomable mystery before which even science bends its knees in adoration.

-We ask in order to share, because we are willing to share. We appeal to others willingness to do the same, and we approach it from our own weaknesses. It is moving to recognize how the sharing of what is deepest in us never has the aggressive character of an imperative, but follows the delicate paths of a proposal and a offer. After all, in giving of ourselves, we ask to be welcomed. Entirely.

In this path of questioning, Jesus is an expert and courageous companion. In the Gospel, the Lord, Son of God and son of man, questions rather than giving solutions, asks rather than answers, in an authentic condition of availability and research. It is not proper of God, and therefore not even of man, to possess (things, knowledge, resolutions) in order to dominate. Rather, it is the giving of space that broadens the horizons of possibility. Certainly some steps are taken when there are answers that confirm, console, and reassure: the discernment of truth always has as its basic criterion the experience of true joy. It embraces the entire sphere of human existence. In other words, if we can rely on any answer, it is the one that will be able to embrace all the details of experience, without rejecting or masking some of them with convenient denials and rigid distortions. The light of the Cross shines brightly on all questions to guide the path of research: because at the bottom of every question lies the intimate experience – which frightens and grieves – of one day having to put an end to the search, because one dies.

If, therefore, up to now we have not yet really asked anything of the Father in the name of Jesus (cf. Jn 16:24a), it is probably because we have not yet had the trusting courage to ask Him why we have to die. The answer is not obvious. But the promise – very personal and intimate – is that the Father himself will respond by embracing us, as beloved children, even on the Cross.

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Testimoni 4 (2021) 30-33

Testimoni è una rivista mensile, del Centro Editoriale Dehoniano, con sede in Italia, a Bologna. La sua tiratura attuale è di circa 4.000 copie. Essa è anche online.

È una rivista di informazione, spiritualità e vita consacrata. Da oltre 35 anni si pone al servizio della vita consacrata con speciale attenzione all’attualità, alla formazione spirituale e psicologica, alla informazione sugli avvenimenti più rilevanti della Chiesa e degli istituti religiosi maschili e femminili.

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