Read an Excerpt
Becoming a Praying Person
By Kevin Perrotta
Loyola PressCopyright © 2005 Kevin Perrotta
All right reserved.
How to Use This GuideIf you want to become a praying person, the natural place to begin is the Bible. Because the Holy Spirit guided the authors of Scripture, the book they wrote is an always-fresh source of wisdom on everything concerning God and our relationship with him.
In this book we will read about six men and women in Scripture to learn from them about being a person of prayer. As we proceed, we will explore connections between what we find in Scripture and our own life. The goal is to grow in a prayerful relationship with God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit.
Our approach will be a guided discovery. It will be guided because we all need support in understanding Scripture and reflecting on what it means for our lives. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith, so we read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Even if we are reading alone rather than in a group, we need resources that help us grow in understanding. Our approach is also one of discovery, because each of us needs to encounter Scripture for ourselves and consider its meaning for our life. No one can do this for us.
This book is designed to give you both guidance for understanding and tools for discovery.
The introduction on page 6 will guide your reading by providing background material and helping you get oriented to the subject of our exploration. Each week, a brief “Background” section will give you context for the reading, and the “Exploring the Theme” section that follows the reading will bring out the meaning of the Scripture passages. Supplementary material between sessions will offer further resources for understanding.
The main tool for discovery is the “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” section in each session. The first questions in this section are designed to spur you to notice things in the text, sharpen your powers of observation, and read for comprehension. Other questions suggest ways to compare the people, situations, and experiences in the biblical texts with your own life and the world today—an important step toward grasping what God is saying to you through the Scripture and what your response might be. Choose the questions you think will work best for you. Preparing to answer all the questions ahead of time is highly recommended.
We suggest that you pay particular attention to the final question each week, labeled “Focus question.” This question points to an especially important issue about prayer raised by the reading. You may find it difficult to answer this focus question briefly. Do leave enough time for everyone in the group to discuss it!
Other sections encourage you to take an active approach to your Bible reading and discussion. At the start of each session, “Questions to Begin” will help you break the ice and start talk flowing. Often these questions are light and have only a slight connection to the reading. After each Scripture reading, there is a suggested time for a “First Impression.” This gives you a chance to express a brief, initial, personal response to the text. Each session ends with a “Prayer to Close” that suggests a way of expressing your response to God.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and twenty minutes. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. If participants are not able to prepare, read the “Exploring the Theme” sections aloud at the points where they appear.
What about leadership? You don’t have to be an expert in the Bible to lead a discussion. Choose one or two people to act as discussion facilitators, and have everyone in the group read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 92) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this book. It contains the biblical texts, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each person will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 96 for recommendations.)
Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) or individuals (page 95). Six Prayerful People
An uncle of mine was one of the British soldiers rescued at Dunkirk in June 1940. Allied resistance to the German offensive had collapsed, and three hundred thousand retreating British soldiers ended up crowded onto the beaches of this French town on the English Channel with German armor at their backs and German planes buzzing in the air above them. In the face of catastrophe, the British navy and civilian ship owners put together a makeshift armada and managed within a few days to ferry the entire British force to safety across the channel. It seemed almost a miracle.
But my uncle was not out of danger. He had escaped the Nazis but came home carrying an enemy inside him. Soon he began to suffer severe headaches. The cause, it was discovered, was a brain tumor. Surgery did not succeed in removing the tumor, and the procedure destroyed his sight. The surgeon predicted he would die within a few weeks. My uncle left the hospital deeply depressed, suddenly engulfed by physical and spiritual darkness.
My family is of Irish Catholic origin. Hoping for a miracle, they took my uncle, Kevin, to Ireland, to the shrine of Oliver Plunkett, a martyred seventeenth-century bishop. There they prayed that the holy man would intercede with God for the restoration of Kevin’s health. No miracle occurred. But my uncle returned home different. The spiritual darkness had lifted. A light had come on within him.
The surgeon’s prediction was not fulfilled. Kevin’s condition stabilized. He was blind but otherwise in reasonably good health (a kind of half miracle?). As war raged across Europe, he lived quietly at home. Increasingly, he spent time in his room, praying. Kevin felt drawn to God. In the darkness of sightlessness and the cancellation of whatever hopes he had had for his life, my uncle found the light of God shining more and more brightly, and he walked toward it.
His brothers and sisters, his friends, and others who visited the family home glimpsed something of this light in Kevin. They found their own awareness of God’s presence and love deepened by being with Kevin. Spending time with him strengthened their trust in God. Probably to his own surprise, in the ten years between the onset of his disease and his death, my uncle became a man of prayer.
I believe that is what many of us aspire to. We would like to become men and women of prayer. We would each like to be an aware-of-God person, a person who pays attention to God, a God-trusting and God-remembering person, a person who responds wholeheartedly to God’s goodness, a person in love with God. The saints—those men and women who actually became people of prayer—insist that this aspiration is built into every human being. Longing for God is written into our DNA, so to speak. God has created us to live in his presence for eternity. In our present life, he offers us a taste of that fulfillment. We find that taste in prayer. “The joys that come through prayer are something like what the joys of heaven must be,” St. Teresa of Ávila wrote.
Becoming a praying person begins not with us but with God. It was by a mysterious providence that my uncle went into darkness and discovered a light that surpassed any he saw on a summer day in England. God’s grace drew him step-by-step on a path no one else could see; he could not see it himself. In childhood he became familiar with many prayers. That was God’s gift. After he became sick, by God’s further gift, his inner sight became attuned to God’s presence in a new way, and his prayers took on a deeper meaning.
God met my uncle in the particular circumstances of his life. In the same way, he meets us in ours. Of course, there are patterns of divine call and human response that produce similarities in our experiences of God. Yet there is something unique, personally tailored, in God’s dealings with each of us. In drawing us to him, God uses our particular personalities and situations, our particular desires and difficulties and needs and sufferings, even our particular weaknesses and sins. If we wish to learn to pray, we may be helped not only by reading about prayer and learning prayers, which all of us may share, but also by exploring the lives of people who prayed. Tracing the process by which particular men and women became people of prayer may not yield any formulas for our own growth. But their experiences may be richly thought-provoking and inspiring. Observing how they became people of prayer in their situations may spur us to discover God’s grace for becoming praying people in ours.
Our approach in the present book follows this logic: we will read about six people of prayer whose stories are told in the Bible. In our readings, we will discover some of their prayers, which we will examine carefully. Our focus, however, will not be on the prayers but on the people who prayed them.
Our six people of prayer are Hannah, David, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Mary, and Paul. The accounts of their lives are found scattered throughout various books of the Bible. The first four are in the Old Testament; the last two are in the New Testament. Each in his or her distinctive way bears witness to the possibilities of prayer. Indeed, that is one of the reasons their stories were included in
Each of them became a unique man or woman of prayer by responding to God in his or her particular situation. If we are to get something out of their stories for ourselves, we need to not only examine their experiences but also use their experiences as a mirror to help us examine our own. Seeing how their needs, failings, conflicts, joys, and dangers moved them to pray can help us consider how we might seek God in the midst of our struggles and blessings. My uncle accepted the unasked-for opportunity that God gave him to become a praying person. What opportunities is God giving you and me to draw closer to him?
As soon as we begin to think about prayer, we confront some fundamental questions: Who is the God to whom we pray? What is he like? What has he done for us, is he doing for us, is he going to do for us? Prayer rises up in us as we discover the answers to these questions. The more we perceive who God is, the more we realize how much he deserves to be trusted and loved. This is the root of prayer.
To be honest, however, in this book we are not going to dwell on these fundamental questions. This is not a book about the nature of God, salvation history, or the gospel. One little book can do only so much. So, at the outset, let us remind ourselves that Christian prayer is prayer in the Holy Spirit, through Christ, to the Father. For the Christian, prayer is the progressively deeper discovery of Christ in us. “I have been crucified with Christ,” St. Paul declared, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19–20). Christ living in us is the beginning, the way, and the goal of our prayer.
You might wonder why we should read about these six biblical people. Certainly our Lady and St. Paul are prominent figures. But to most of us, David seems more distant, and Jeremiah seems rather obscure. And Hannah? And Nehemiah? Most of us would have to consult the table of contents in our Bible to find the book that bears his name. And, besides, where is Jesus?
To take the last question first, Jesus is elsewhere in this series of Six Weeks with the Bible books, several of which explore the Gospels. In addition, an upcoming book in this series will be devoted entirely to Jesus as a man of prayer.
Why these six? I have chosen them partly for their great human interest. Each of them lives and prays with deep feeling. Hannah is driven to tears by childlessness; David suffers remorse over his sins. Jeremiah is angry at God for leading him into a life of unresolvable conflicts. Nehemiah is grief-stricken at the misery of his people. Mary sounds a strongly contrasting note: she exults in God’s astonishing mercy and generosity toward her and, through her, to all people. Paul’s prayer brings him assurance of God’s help and peace on the brink of disaster.
Furthermore, there is variety in the prayers of these six. Mary’s Magnificat, surely one of the most familiar prayers in the Bible, is a song of thanksgiving, as is one of Hannah’s prayers. Psalm 51, attributed to David, is the Bible’s most profound prayer of repentance. Jeremiah’s prayers are a mixture: cries for God’s help are interwoven with protests against God’s way of dealing with the world—and against the role that God has given Jeremiah to play in it. Nehemiah, by contrast, earnestly desires to carry out a plan for God’s people. As you read the excerpt about Paul, you might at first think that I have chosen a trick reading, since there is hardly any prayer to be seen. But the prayer is offstage, and it is of great importance.
Certainly our six selections do not introduce every kind of prayer. They do not touch on every topic that is relevant to our attempts to grow into people of prayer. No book of six readings could do that. But each of our readings opens up an avenue of prayer and offers us much for our journey. After most of the weekly sessions, short articles offer further reflections on prayer and resources for praying (after Weeks 1, 2, 4, and 5). Jeremiah’s struggle with God in prayer (Week 3) is followed by a brief account of a friend of mine who has struggled with God.
In order to understand our six chosen people of prayer, we will need to learn something about their lives. The “Exploring the Theme” sections will help with this. We will also need to use our imagination to enter into the characters’ situations. This requires some effort, for their world was quite different from ours (we should probably say their worlds, since Hannah and Paul, for example, lived in different places and more than a thousand years apart). If you think about how different your life is from your great-grandmother’s and multiply the difference by, say, thirty, you will get some idea of the order of magnitude by which our modern world is different from the worlds of our six biblical characters.
As a result, at times, it must be said, our ancestors in faith seem strange, just as people who live today in cultures different from our own may seem strange. Hannah, for example, lived in a small-scale village society where family was the key to survival and the woman’s role revolved around birthing and nurturing new family members. For women, there simply were no opportunities for work or learning or self-expression not connected to this central responsibility. Men, too, of course, faced a limited range of options. The values of people in Hannah’s world may strike us as narrow. As modern people, we may find Hannah’s social situation almost claustrophobic. Surely, we may say to ourselves, women should not be valued only in terms of motherhood? Surely Hannah should not view herself as a failure if she is unable to bear children? Yet Hannah did not make the world into which she was born, nor could she remake it. She was just trying to live in the world that was given to her, and she naturally shared the outlook of the people in that world. To appreciate Hannah’s story, we need to get beyond any critique we might have of her society and focus on how she lived within her circumstances. The more we can mentally enter into her world and see her situation as she saw it, the better we will understand her and grasp the importance of prayer for her. Then we will gain from her something for our own prayer and relationship with God in our very different world.
To take another example, the story of David involves a woman named Bathsheba, but the narrator places the spotlight on David while leaving Bathsheba in shadow. In doing this, the narrator reflects the society of the time, in which men played the main public roles and unapologetically viewed the world from a male viewpoint. Personally, I regret the absence of a feminine perspective in the story. But we must work with the account as it is given to us, entering as best we can into the events and choices of each of the characters. Again, the more we use our imagination to get inside the story, the more deeply we will be moved by it.
It is worth observing that the cultural strangeness of some aspects of the biblical world is part of one of the Bible’s most remarkable characteristics. The Bible is composed of thoroughly human writings that reflect the society and culture of the human authors; yet, at the same time, it is thoroughly inspired by God, thoroughly the work of the divine author who guided the human authors to produce a work that conveys truth far beyond the confines of the authors’ world. In the composition of Scripture, the infinite God was revealing himself to the finite men and women of ancient Israel and the early Church. Through their writings he continues to reveal himself to us today.
Because we will be reading excerpts from different books of the Bible, rather than reading passages from a single biblical book, we will not be able to view each of our excerpts in its context within its biblical book. Neither will we be able to trace all the events that led up to the situation about which we read. To compensate for these lacks, a brief “Background” section before each week’s reading will provide some essential information about the circumstances that lie behind the events in the texts. But before we begin our readings, it is helpful to remind ourselves of a couple of important aspects of their background.
First, by focusing on particular moments of prayer in our characters’ lives, we necessarily neglect the frameworks of prayer in their lives. In our brief readings, we do not see much of their participation in the patterns of worship in their community—the weekly Scripture reading and prayer on the Sabbath, the celebration of the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day, the annual festivals, and so on. We do not see their day-to-day patterns of prayer and reflection on God’s word. Nor do we see the countless little decisions and actions by which they slowly grow closer to God. Our readings are photos, not movies. We should remember, however, that becoming people of prayer involves not only significant moments of divine encounter and grace but also many ordinary times when prayer continues, often without any distinct experience of God’s presence. My uncle encountered God in a life-changing way through his pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Oliver Plunkett, but then he continued to grow closer to God through many hours of undoubtedly undramatic prayer in his sometimes chilly bedroom.
An even more fundamental reality largely hidden in our readings is the Holy Spirit. David refers to the Spirit in his prayer of repentance; Luke mentions the Spirit in his account of Mary. Elsewhere in our readings the Spirit is the unspoken presence, the unseen actor in the minds and hearts of the people about whom we read. It is important for us to recall his hidden presence, since he is present in us, too, both revealing God to us and empowering us to turn toward God and address him as Father (Galatians 4:6).
Most of us are mere beginners in the life of prayer. Certainly I am only at the beginning of becoming a praying person. But, as the author of this book, I feel I can draw on some words with which St. Francis de Sales prefaced his Introduction to the Devout Life: “It is true, dear reader, that I write about the devout life although I myself am not devout. Yet it is certainly not without a desire of becoming so and it is such affection that encourages me to instruct you. As a great man of letters has said, ‘to study is a good way to learn; to hear is a still better way; to teach is the best of all.’” Wanting to learn to pray, I have been looking into the Bible to observe men and women of prayer whose stories are contained there. In this book, I invite you to look at them with me—and to look for yourself and ponder what you read. We can read Scripture with confidence that God will teach each of us and guide us and lead us to him. May our readings in Scripture be an opportunity for the Spirit of God to lead us more deeply into prayer.Week 1
A Childless Wife’s AnguishQuestions to Begin
Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 How old were you when you started school?
2 What’s the most competitive situation you’ve ever been in? Did you like it?The proper starting point for reading the Bible is the attitude of reverence and appreciation which we owe . . . especially to friends, who sometimes act in strange ways. . . . We presume that they have a reason which sooner or later we will understand.
Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, “Adult Bible Study: Norms and Goals,” New Theology ReviewOpening the Bible
Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.The Background
The time of our reading is about 1050 BC. The Israelites are farmers and shepherds living in areas that today are in the state of Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the kingdom of Jordan. They are a tribal federation with no central government or temple. Hannah lives in a backwater village, but she prays two of the most notable prayers in the Bible.
The Reading: 1 Samuel 1:1–2:11, 18–21For This Child I Prayed
1:1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim . . . whose name was Elkanah. . . . 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh. . . . 4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel. . . .
21 The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. 22 But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there forever. . . .” 23 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Do what seems best to you. . . .”
24 When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young. 25 Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. 26 And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. 27 For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. 28 Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.”
She left him there for the Lord.
2:1 Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God. . . .
2 There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you. . . .
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength. . . .
5 The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor. . . .
10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.”
11 Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, while the boy remained to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli. . . .
18 Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. 20 Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the Lord”; and then they would return to their home.
21 And the Lord took note of Hannah; she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.
Briefly mention a question you have about the reading or one thing in it that surprised, impressed, delighted, or challenged you. No discussion! Just listen to one another’s reactions.Exploring the Theme
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Reflection and Discussion.”
Our reading takes us back to a period when our ancestors in faith lived in the hill country east and west of the Jordan River. They grew grains and vegetables, tended date palms and olive trees, and raised cattle, sheep, and goats. Theirs was a family-centered way of life. Survival depended on family members working together. Children, of course, were essential for the family to continue, and women’s lives focused on bringing them into the world. For a woman, success or failure in the role of mother equaled success or failure in life. Given the importance of children, it was an accepted practice for a man whose wife did not bear any children to take an additional wife.
Each year families would travel together to worship at a regional shrine. There they offered their thanksgiving to God. This involved slaughtering an animal, burning part of it on an altar, and eating the remainder in a festive meal. Normally this ritual strengthened family bonds (the Hebrew term translated “yearly sacrifice” in 1:21 means a clan or kinship sacrifice—compare 1 Samuel 20:6, 29), but prayer has no magical effects, as we can see from the conflict that spoiled the unity meal shared by Elkanah, Hannah, and Peninnah.
1 Samuel 1:1–8. Hannah has apparently borne the stigma of “childless wife” for a long time—first during the early period of her marriage, before it became apparent that she was not going to bear children, and then for years after Elkanah’s second marriage as Peninnah gradually filled the house with offspring, of whom there are at least four, since she has both “sons” and “daughters” (1:4).
The annual worship at the shrine in Shiloh is a time of painful contradictions for Hannah. She joins in giving thanks to the God who has withheld the one blessing that is indispensable for making her life a success (1:5–6). While the meal is supposed to draw the family together, the sharing out of portions of sacrificed meat reminds her that she has not contributed any new members to the family—a point that Peninnah emphasizes with gusto. The meal that is supposed to deepen the family’s unity through communion with God becomes the occasion for painful intrafamily conflict. (Why do the worst family conflicts sometimes erupt at holidays?) Elkanah’s consoling words only highlight Hannah’s inconsolability. Husbandly affection cannot take the place of a child.
1:9–11. In Hannah’s society, a mother depended on her grown sons for care if, as often happened, she was widowed. But if only God will give her a son, Hannah is willing to forgo this expected support. The child will serve God, not Hannah, when he grows up. (A “nazirite” lived a distinct lifestyle of dedication to God—see Numbers 6:1–21.)
1:12–18. Notice that it is not Hannah’s weeping but her praying silently that draws Eli’s attention. Expressive prayer was considered normal. People were not ashamed to show their feelings. But Hannah’s wordless yet obviously agitated prayer raises the priest’s suspicions. His specific accusation is understandable given the prevalence of drinking at some of the festivals.
1:19–28. A mother might nurse a baby for about three years (see 2 Maccabees 7:27), so Hannah’s plan (1:22) will keep her little boy with her for a considerable period. Still, Samuel goes off to boarding school at a tender age (1:24). In this society, where family needs take precedence over the individual’s interests, parents feel free to make major decisions for their children.
2:1–10. Hannah celebrates God’s goodness with a prayer that looks beyond her personal situation. Certainly she has experienced God’s care for the underdog, but she praises God for bringing about a reversal of fortunes that exceeds what she herself has experienced. God has given her one child, not seven, and he has not taken Peninnah’s children away from her, as 2:5 might suggest. Verse 4 celebrates a military victory, verse 8 a social revolution, neither of which belongs to Hannah’s own story. Most surprising, Hannah declares that God strengthens his chosen king, even though Israel will not have a king for another generation (her son Samuel will anoint him).
Perhaps God has enabled Hannah to glimpse the larger divine plan in which her son will play a part—a plan for reshaping the people of Israel, and ultimately the whole world, a plan in which God will rebuke human arrogance, end oppression, and rescue the downtrodden. There is another possible explanation for the discrepancy between Hannah’s limited situation and the wide-angle focus of her prayer: she may be adapting an existing prayer that spoke about God’s goodness to his whole people.
2:11, 18–21. God uses Eli’s blessings as a channel of his kindness to Hannah and Elkanah. Hannah bears more children, including some boys who, we may hope, cared for her in her old age while their elder brother Samuel went on to become a prophet and to play a decisive role in the history of Israel.
Reflections. Hannah wanted to play her part in society, to fulfill the God-given purpose of her life. As she and the people around her saw it, that meant bearing a child. Her childlessness tormented her. It was this need that drove Hannah toward God. Our world is different from Hannah’s, but we too desire to find and fulfill our purpose in this world. One thinks of the young person searching for the right kind of work, the single adult waiting to meet Mr. or Ms. Right, the old person struggling to continue being an active member of society. Hannah’s specific problem—infertility—continues to be a source of sorrow to many couples today. And once we determine what we should be doing in life, we want to experience fruitfulness and success, but things do not always turn out as we wished. Hannah’s longing and frustration became an avenue for her toward God. Can’t our needs and sorrows be an avenue for us?
Hannah experienced God as the one who answers prayers. That is one reason why members of the community of faith incorporated her story in Scripture. There is a message here for us. Even if Hannah’s experience offers no guarantee as to how God may choose to respond to our appeals, he is still the God who answers prayers.
Hannah’s two moments of prayer present striking contrasts: first a private appeal for help, a let-it-all-hang-out cry from the heart, then a formal public expression of thanks; first a silent prayer, then a song. In both cases, Hannah uses the time and place of her community’s gathering for prayer as the time and place for her personal communication with God. We can find much food for thought here about the range of possibilities for our own speaking to God.Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Why does Elkanah ask Hannah why she’s weeping (1:8)?
2 Is Hannah’s prayer in 1:11 selfish? In what ways can prayer be selfish? In what ways can prayer be unselfish?
3 Jesus will later teach us to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In what ways is Hannah’s prayer a request that God’s name be hallowed, that his kingdom come, that his will be done?
4 At first Hannah does not tell Eli why she is distressed (1:15–16; compare 1:26–28). What might be the reason for her refraining from doing so?
5 At the end of the first episode, Hannah eats and drinks and no longer seems weighed down with sorrow (1:18). Why?
6 How would you evaluate the relationship between Elkanah and Hannah? Base your view on the text.
7 Name a person of prayer you have known. How did she or he become a praying person? What could you learn from this person about growing in prayer? (If possible, consider talking with this person about how to grow in prayer.)
8 What obstacles prevent people from participating in life fully today (for example: physical disabilities, mental and emotional diseases, declining health in old age, and inadequate material resources)? What can be done, in the Church and in society, to help people overcome these obstacles?
9 Focus question. Select a situation in which you asked God to do something important for you or someone else. How did you pray? What happened? How did you experience God in response to your prayer? How has this affected your relationship with God? What did you learn that you could apply to your life now?Prayer to Close
Use this approach—or create your own!
Pray Psalm 13 as an appeal to God for any needs of your own or of others who may have come to mind as your were reading about Hannah. Think of the “enemy” in the psalm as your own sinful tendencies and as the forces that stand in the way of your meeting these needs.
If everyone in the group has the same translation of Scripture, pray it aloud in unison. Otherwise, take turns reading verses from participants’ various translations. End with a Glory to the Father.Between DiscussionsLet the Psalms Be Your PrayersCrying out to God in her heart, Hannah gave free expression to her feelings of humiliation. The biblical author implies that she writhed in anguish as she pleaded with God (it must have been more than silent praying that led Eli to think she was drunk—1 Samuel 1:9–14). Three or four years later, however, when Hannah appeared at the shrine again, now with the boy Samuel, she offered a much more formal prayer. This time she prayed a poem of praise of God (2:1–10), probably a song that she sang in the presence of other worshipers. The song may have been of her own making, or it may have been an existing prayer that she found appropriate for her situation.
Scholars think that many of the biblical psalms originated as prayers of the people, that is, prayers designed to be used by many individuals. These prayers may have been composed at regional shrines and, later, at the temple in Jerusalem and then kept on file by the priests, who would offer them to pilgrims as a means of expressing their needs and gratitude to God (some psalms of appeal: 4; 13; 17; 28:1–5; 35; 40:11–17; some psalms of thanksgiving: 18; 34; 103; 111; 116). One reason for this theory is that many of the psalms express troubles, desires, and thanksgivings in general terms, without going into the particulars of any individual’s situation. Many psalms are vague about the problem the psalmist asks God to solve or the answer to prayer for which the psalmist is grateful. Is the person who prays Psalm 22, for example, suffering from a deadly disease, or does he or she have deadly enemies? Are the verbal attacks against the psalmist in Psalm 31 slanders on the street or accusations in a court of law? Is the pray-er of Psalm 30 thanking God for vindication from false accusations or for healing of a physical disease? It is impossible to be sure. Yet far from being a weakness, this blurring of details was a strength, for it made the psalms prayable by many different people. This nonspecific character of the psalms has made them usable down the centuries by Jews and Christians in many different situations.
The imagery of the psalms doesn’t just make them appropriate for all kinds of appeals and thanksgivings. It also makes them accessible to people in vastly different cultures. An American, an Italian, or a Japanese can easily slip inside the ancient Israelite’s prayer and declare, “I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill” (Psalm 3:4) or “Turn, O Lord, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love” (Psalm 6:4). The idea of God being on a high hill and the idea of our needing to persuade him to turn toward us in our need—poetic rather than theological concepts—draw on universal human experiences of height and distance to express God’s mysterious transcendence and his occasional apparent neglect of our needs. The imagery makes sense to anyone.
Many people have remarked that it is possible to find a psalm suitable for every situation and mood. Certainly the range of expression in the psalms is very extensive. Their poetry can aid us in putting into words a great many of our deepest feelings toward God, from near despair to exultation (compare Psalms 88 and 18).
Yet the psalms do more than help us articulate what we already wish to say to God. They lead us beyond our thoughts and feelings into new ways of praying. They push and pull us into a deeper, closer relationship with God. The psalms strengthen our faith. Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris writes: “The Psalms . . . present us with a manner of praying that gives words to our lips while giving to our heart and our faith the nourishment necessary to endure while speaking to God.” For example, the psalmists frequently appeal to God to “remember” his “steadfast love” (see Psalms 5:7; 6:4). In difficult circumstances, some of us tend to retreat into doubts about the depth of God’s concern for us. Not the psalmists! They remind God of his “steadfast love”—his merciful faithfulness, his loyal kindness. They do not mean to imply that the Creator really forgets anything. Rather their reminders to God of his faithfulness express their trust in him: “Dear God, I know you are loyal and gracious, so help me according to the full measure of your faithfulness and kindness!” As we pray their prayers, the psalmists share confidence in God with us.
Excerpted from Becoming a Praying Person by Kevin Perrotta Copyright © 2005 by Kevin Perrotta. Excerpted by permission.
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