Discovering that we don’t know what we want (Prayer)

Alison’s passage here on prayer is really interesting, though his “symptom” language is a bit confusing:

It is not true that we pray so as to move God. It is truer that in our praying God is moving us. It is truer that we are prayed-in than that we pray. This I take to be absolutely in line with Paul’s teaching in Romans:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

It is also, surely, the point of our Lord’s insistence:

“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows that you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8)

If it is true that our ‘self’ is a symptom, then prayer is God’s way of getting into the symptom from within and transforming it. This picture of the self does indeed presuppose that we don’t really know what we want, a discovery which may be one of the most important things about learning to pray. And this means not that we can’t make our mind up about this desire or that desire, but that our mind is made up of, constituted by, contradictory desires such that we can’t desire in a healthy way at all. The reason why our Lord insists on prayer is not so as to turn us all into mystics who levitate and float off walls, though that would be fun too, but because it is by agreeing to get in touch with, and not mind sitting with and in the contradictory, somewhat ‘smelly’ desires which move us that we are able to allow our desire to be strengthened, directed, ordered, so that we actually become someone. This is the promise of prayer: don’t be content with to little, dare to be given to become someone. And the promise is realized as a resting in and trusting in one who ‘knows what you need before you ask him’ which means, who is the active subject whose ‘symptom’ you are.

-James Alison, On Being Liked, p.142

Sure, we bring our petitions to God, but I find that during most of our deepest times of prayer, we don’t really know what we are asking. We don’t know what we want, what we expect. But we are still praying. It transforms us. It opens the door for him to transform some part of us. This is good.