The question of prayer - more precisely, of the value of prayer - is one of the most mystifying (and sometimes irksome) questions raised by our religion. In most cases, when we turn to God in prayer, it is because we lack some perceived good, which might be gained from God by petition. This good may be petty or exalted; regardless, so long as it is a genuine good, we are not be accused of selfishness. We were made to desire goods, and no doubt God uses this desire as a means of bringing us more frequently to prayer. Even times of great suffering can thereby become times of great prayer, and hence prove useful for our sanctification.
But this raises a bigger question. Does the profit of prayer lie primarily in the good we may receive in answer to it, or does it lie rather in the act of prayer itself?
Origen of Alexandria, in his treatise On Prayer
, opts for the latter. In fact, the entire treatise can be seen as an argument for looking at prayer primarily in terms of the act itself, rather than in the ends it seeks to accomplish. The act of prayer brings about a certain disposition on the part of man, and this disposition, for Origen, is at the very heart of religion.
Even though further benefit than this be supposed to accrue to him who has composed his thoughts for prayer, no ordinary gain is to be conceived as gotten by one who has devoutly disposed himself in the season of prayer. When this is regularly practiced, how many sins it keeps us from, and how many achievements it brings us to, is known only to those who have given themselves up with some degree of constancy to prayer.
The act of prayer unites man to God, or rather, re-unites Him to the God whence he has come, laying bare the image of God before the Archetype of that Image, the image which otherwise has become tarnished and soiled from misuse. Man participates in the Divine by his very nature and being, and yet he recoils from this participation inasmuch as he immerses himself in worldly cares and preoccupations. By recollecting himself in prayer, and lifting his mind upward in contemplation of God, this participation is rekindled, and the divine image in him blazes forth.
That benefit accrues to him who prays rightly or according to his ability strives to do so, follows, I consider, in many ways: It is, first of all, surely in every sense a spiritual advantage to him who is intent upon prayer, in the very composure of prayer to present himself to God and in His presence to speak to Him with a vivid sense that he looks on and is present. For just as certain mental images and particular recollections connected with the objects recollected may sully the thoughts suggested by certain other images, in the same way we may believe that it is advantageous to remember God as the object of our faith—the One who discerns the movements within the inner sanctuary of the soul as it disposes itself to please the Examiner of Hearts and Inquisitor of [Minds] as One who is present and beholds and penetrates into every mind.
This disposition in man's heart, which occurs the moment he inclines his mind to prayer, is profitable apart from any potential 'answer' he may receive for his petitions. In fact, the answering of his petitions may even prove detrimental, if, in the satisfaction of his desire, he ceases to pray and focuses his attention on the object of his desire.
For if the recollection and recontemplation of a man who has found fame and benefit in wisdom incites us to evaluate him and sometimes restrains our lower impulses, how much more does the recollection of God the Father of All, along with prayer to Him, become advantageous to those who are persuaded that they stand before and speak to a present and hearing God!
Certainly, Origen's is not the 'last word' on prayer. Much good can also be said of the answers received to worthy prayers, especially those prayers for spiritual and virtuous goods. Without prayer we could gain no spiritual goods at all, since these come from divine grace rather than from human industry. But Origen's words are an urgent reminder, that whenever we turn to God in prayer, we do not set our hearts exclusively upon our prayers being answered, and thereby neglect the value which comes to us from the act of prayer itself.