Mark Shea: Prayer Is Not A Cosmic Vending Machine


Editor’s note: Christina Ries spoke with Mark Shea about his latest book, “The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Rediscovering the Our Father and the Hail Mary,” which came out in March, his second book of 2012. CatholicMatch is publishing the interview as a three-part series. Check back next Sunday, June 17, for part two: Mark’s take on marketing the Catholic Church and learning from G.K. Chesterton. And don’t miss part three on the following Sunday, June 24, which relays Mark’s thoughts on critical thinking and finding a spouse.


Is this your 13th book?

I’ve contributed to various books, so yeah, we’ll say 13. What the heck.

There are books I’m the sole author of, and I think that would make this about No. 8. But there are other books that I’m co-author and so forth, so sure, let’s say 13. I can’t remember, to tell you the truth.


What makes this one different from your others?

It’s the first what I would call devotional work, so I’m not primarily trying to teach – I mean, I’m always trying to teach, I’m always trying to help people get a better grasps on what the tradition has to say – but in this book I’m looking at the Church’s tradition on prayer and trying to read with a heart more than do some kind of apologetics that’s addressed to arguing with somebody about something. So yeah, in that sense, it’s a different sort of book than anything I’ve written. I’m not trying to prove anything.


So was the whole process more meditative?

Yeah, it was. Basically I slowly took apart the Lord’s Pray and the Hail Mary and looked at each little piece and held it up in light of the Church’s overall tradition on prayer. And I looked at these two prayers in particular because they’re right at the core. If Catholics don’t know any other prayer they know the Our Father and the Hail Mary.

And what interests me about the prayers is that one of them of course is emphatically a prayer from the top down, as high up to the top as you can get, Jesus himself says: “Here’s how you pray.”

Whereas the Hail Mary is a prayer that really grows up from the bottom. It’s a prayer that emerges out of the popular piety of the church. Nobody wrote the Hail Mary. It’s a prayer that’s sort of cobbled together from a couple of different Bible passages, from the opening words of the prayer, Gabriel’s greeting in the Gospel of Luke, and then the next part of the prayer is Elizabeth’s greeting, also from the Gospel of Luke, and the last part of the prayer is essentially something that emerged out of the piety of medieval Catholic Europe – pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death – and in between, the title that’s given to Mary, “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” is also a title that emerges out of popular piety in the very early Church. We have Mary addressed as the mother of God in the second century and on forward. So it’s really a prayer that grew in the soil of Catholic Christendom, so I think that’s interesting because it’s a prayer that in many ways is kind of a mirror reflection of the Lord’s prayer, which make sense because Mary is sort of a mirror reflection to Jesus.

(What I Learned About Dating From The Queen Of Hearts)

Why the need for this book? Why do these prayers need rediscovering, as the book’s subtitle suggests?

They’re prayers that you can look at the same thing 100 times and not see it and then suddenly on the 101st time you see it. And that’s what I was trying to do, to help people see these prayers again and hear how extraordinary they are and think about how extraordinary prayer is at all. The amazing thing about prayer is the fact that we do it all.

As somebody comes from a non-Christian background, there are a lot of questions that people who are Christians, particularly raised catholic, don’t think about at all. “Oh, prayer, it’s part of the furniture. That’s what you do.”

From somebody who’s coming from the outside: “Why do you do that? If God is all knowing, what’s the point of prayer? He already knows what you need, so why go through this odd kabooky of asking an all-knowing God who already loves you so much to have died for you? Isn’t He going to pony up anyway? Does he like to play Simon Says?”

That’s the first thing the book looks at is why pray at all. And the point of prayer is not that God needs information or my helpful advice –


Though sometimes we get that confused.

Oh, we do that all the time, sure, and that’s part of petitionary prayer: God, here’s what I want. And God actually encourages that. He doesn’t say that’s juvenile and selfish and all the rest of it. He says “Give us this day our daily bread” is how you are to pray.

But the point of it is prayer, the whole work of redemption, is something that certainly Jesus didn’t need to do, but once you undertake the logic of the reality that God actually loves us and wants us to become persons in his presence then prayer makes perfect sense.

A Greek magician would say God knows everything so you don’t have to tell him anything.

Jesus says, “God knows everything and therefore you can tell Him anything,” because Jesus is looking at relationship. And that’s what prayer is ultimately about: Not that God needs anything, it’s that we need to become persons in his presence. Prayer is for our sake; it’s not for his sake. So prayer allows you to become more fully a person in his presence.

So Jesus, for example, we see him throughout the Gospel asking people questions, which is really weird. The proposition offered us is this man is God and then he goes around: “What do you want me to do for you? How do you read it?”

It’s not because he wants that information; it’s because we have to reveal ourselves

Pope John Paul II says that Jesus doesn’t reveal the Father to us, He reveals us to ourselves.


I love that!

So that’s what’s going on in prayer.

So in order to do that, the Lord’s Prayer does not encourage us to begin with our laundry list of goodies we want from the cosmic vending machine. You don’t get to “give us the day our daily bread” until well into the prayer. The first thing the Lord’s Prayer does is it directs us to the father, and it teaches us to parrot certain things, which sounds weird, but that’s in fact how we always teach our children

We have a 2-year-old niece right now and she is in the process of being transformed, as all children, from selfish fallen savage who thinks solely of herself to somebody who’s learning how to parrot words like please and thank you. And the whole point of that is not that she will grow up to be a parrot but to be a civilized human being.

It starts with parrot talk.

So what do we do? We start by saying, “Hallowed be thy name,” which we aren’t thinking at all when we get up in the morning. I don’t get up thinking, “Hallowed be the name of God.” I’m thinking about me, me, me! What do I want?

The Lord’s Prayer begins by teaching us the rudimentary steps out of being selfish savages. And then we keep in doing that and finally we move on to petitionary prayers, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and we conclude with, interestingly, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

And also before we get there we have “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” which is the only part of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus himself offers commentary on: “If you do not forgive everyone that you have anything against, your Father will not forgive you, which is a devastating and difficult thing for us to hear, but it’s the most necessary thing for us to hear.”

What the Gospel reveals to us is how high the stakes are: We’re talking about nothing less than the difference between heaven and hell.


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