It seems to me that there are different “stages” people move through in the lifelong journey of learning to pray. Different “modes” of prayer that seem to develop along a trajectory of growing experience and maturity.
Prayer as petition
It seems the first stage is usually prayer as petition: simply asking God for what we want, recognizing that we cannot do everything ourselves. Over and over in the Scriptures we are invited to ask God for what we want. This is a vital and legitimate mode of prayer for the believer. The Lord’s Prayer is filled with simple petitions, and we never “outgrow” this mode of prayer.
But if we get stuck in this stage of prayer, we end up viewing prayer as a means of manipulating God: We attempt to coerce a “higher power” to do our bidding in a quid pro quo kind of arrangement. We scratch God’s back and God scratches ours. The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 is a macabre example of this kind of prayer.
Prayer as surrender
A second “stage” (or mode) of prayer, then, is prayer as surrender. We recognize that God is interested in doing deeper transformative work in our souls, beyond simply answering our explicit petitions.
In prayer, God is at work in us to transform us into the likeness of Christ. Prayer is about letting go of our preconceived notions about what I need, and allowing God to work in us. Prayer is how I give myself over to the work only God can do in me. Prayer becomes not about getting what I want from God, but surrendering to what God is doing in me.
Again, this a good and vital progression in the life of prayer, and we never “outgrow” our need to pray in this way. But I think if we get stuck in this mode of prayer, we miss something vital about how God desires to work both in and through us in prayer.
I think a further “stage” or mode of prayer that incorporates and integrates both prayer as petition and prayer as surrender could be called prayer as participation.
Prayer as participation
Prayer as participation plunges us into the depths of the life the triune God shares with us. We realize that prayer is not about manipulating God, of course, but we also recognize that it is not only about changing us. Prayer is how we learn to participation in the life and activity of the Trinity in and around us.
Prayer as participation works both “ways,” then: we surrender to God’s will in prayer and are changed, but we are also invited to become agents of change through prayer. Prayer is how God shares God’s power with us, to really affect things “out there” in the world.
It’s not a math equation, of course. God is not a machine we manipulate for measurable results. But neither is it a ruse when Jesus tells his disciples, “If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14).
God really does desire to share divine power with us in prayer, inviting us to become agents of divine goodness for others through prayer. Prayer as participation allows us to return with a “second naivete” to prayer as petition from an increasingly surrendered place, integrating everything. As Richard Rohr put it, “God allows us to matter and our prayers to matter” (The Divine Dance, p. 153).
Everything is connected
Prayer as participation accomplishes the good work of God shaping us into the likeness of Christ, but it also accomplishes something outside of us as well. Of course it does! How could it not, since we’re connected to one another in deeper ways than are imagined in Newtonian physics?
Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote about the Church’s process of “spiritual osmosis” whereby one person’s experience in contemplative prayer can allow her or him to bear difficulties and sufferings on behalf of other people (whether they pray or not), and multitudes could in fact be practically helped by one person’s willingness to enter into prayer and open themselves to whatever God wanted to do in and through them on any given day (Prayer, p. 90).
Thus God’s work is never purely “out there” or “in here.” It’s connected. God is always present and at work, in here and out there, it’s all part of it, and we don’t control any of it. Prayer is where we learn to live in this reality. This is prayer as participation.