Image: The Temptation of St Anthony, engraving by Martin Schongauer, c. 1470–75
After offering an invocation that leads me through a door into the divine presence, I often find that my mind seems to wander from problem to problem. I might have some grievance with a friend or church member, and am therefore secretly mourning a break in our relationship. I might be carrying around a weight of anger that suddenly flashes to the surface. I might be wracked with some fear for myself, my family, or the world. All of these things have been whispering in my ear when I’m not intentionally praying, and without the intention of prayer I tend to try to shut them out.
Years ago I was being pestered by anger over a dying relationship. Little niggling thoughts of resentment wouldn’t go away. I stepped back from myself and admitted what was happening, and an image immediately came into my mind. It was Martin Schongauer’s 15th century engraving of The Temptation of St. Anthony. In the image, Anthony floats in midair as small, bizarre demons tear at his clothing. I realized that my resentments towards my friend were like those small demons. Strangely grotesque, but also somewhat ridiculous. In the engraving, Anthony doesn’t look frightened or traumatized, only stoic and slightly annoyed. He certainly doesn’t look tempted. But Schongauer’s visualization of all those troubling inward thoughts was very helpful to me. It put them in their proper perspective.
Petitionary prayer works in the same way for me. It takes the griefs, angers, and fears that flit about my daily life and externalizes them, allowing me to look at them. That itself is not the petition. The petition arises once I’ve brought a problem into the light and turned it around and around, examining its different facets. Maybe someone is demanding too much of me. Realizing that, I ask myself why I resent it. I might answer that I’m sad that this someone isn’t forming other relationships within my church community, because the community can bear their burden easier than I can, simply by distributing the weight of it among many people. I might remind myself of this someone’s painful past, which makes it hard for them to trust people. I might feel some gratitude that they decided to trust me, and then begin to wonder how they might come to trust other people. And I might ask myself what I will do if they refuse the benefits of the community, and keep trying to rely solely on me. It is then, when I really know what I’m asking for, that I can ask for God’s help. I can ask God to help me remain patient, but firm. I can ask God to help me find ways of introducing this someone to other people in the community. I can ask God to remove any little ego need that I have which keeps me from doing so.
Having made this petition, I can recognize that all three modes of covenant are active within it. I work through the covenant I’ve made with my many selves by asking what’s really bothering me and what my real needs are. I work through the covenant I’ve made with my neighbor by exploring my relationship with someone else and asking how principles of neighborliness can help both of us. I work through my covenant with God by making my petition as clear and honest as I can, by really knowing what I’m asking for.