Prayer Takes Us Home: The Theology and Practice of Christian Prayer
By Gerhard Lohfink
Translated by Linda M. Maloney
Gerhard Lohfink is known and loved for the numerous volumes he has given us over the years. For this priest and New Testament exegete, every one of his efforts has had in mind those seeking to find God despite doubt and the secular character of the world of our time. Since retiring from the University of Tübingen in the 1980s, Lohfink has been a member of the Catholic Integrated Community (CIC), a canonical apostolic community of clergy and laity who live in residential houses and consider themselves a community of the table of the Lord. The members pursue their own professions and lives. They are both married and unmarried yet share a common life of worship and fellowship. Lohfink’s books come from his work both as a priest and teacher in the CIC, in which his older brother Norbert, an Old Testament exegete, has lived and taught.
The style of Lofink’s books is marked by a hospitality toward the reader. There are no presumptions about what people know or do not know. Rather, Lohfink always begins with the basics, working beyond these to more nuanced understanding of Jesus, the church, the Our Father and here prayer in its breadth and depth. And there is always a very practical sensibility—how does Jesus, how does the church, how does prayer affect me and my life and work with others?
In this book on prayer, Lohfink takes us back to the Hebrew Bible, naturally where one needs to go in order to best understand what is said in the New Testament gospels and letters. But we are also reminded of how Aristotle and the ancient Greeks conceived of God and our relationship to God. And given the enormous presence of Islam in western Europe, he also takes seriously the Qu’ran’s attitude toward one God in light of the Christian experience of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All of this comes in the effort to reflect on who is the focus of our prayer. Lohfink does the same in exploring what the prayer of petition or asking really means and it is not simply asking for a miracle to happen.
The method the author employs here as well as in his other books, is immensely helpful. Rather than proceeding to concepts of petition, lament, confession, thanksgiving—the various registers or forms of prayer, Lohfink has us inspect concrete prayers such as the Western Church collects, in particular the Good Friday Great Intercessions, the Our Father, and the Jewish Eighteen Benedictions or Amidah. He takes us through classic prayers of praise from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Then he returns to the difficulty so many of us have with petition or intercessory prayer nowadays. He perceptively cites Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and Bertolt Brecht on the difficulty of belief and thus of prayer. For a long time there has been real doubt about whether God listens to what we ask for and there is the sense that God simply does not intervene just because we pester God with our requests. This leads Lohfink to a thoughtful analysis of what the prayer of petition does to us, how it widens our perception of the needs of others as well as ourselves, how it makes us aware of how helpless we often are. Importantly, this asking God for help builds trust in us, urging us to deepen our relationships both with God and others. The Our Father serves as a wonderful model. In it we ask for things that we need right here and now, like bread each day, but we also ask for forgiveness and the ability to forgive, as well as deliverance from the Evil One. Despite our suspicions about prayer, Lohfink helps us see that it is the way that our relationships with God and with each are expressed, are nourished, and grow deeper.
In digging into the psalms, Lohfink gives us an unexpected journey into how prayer can also give voice to lament, sadness and loss, fear and anxiety and more, feelings we all know as very powerful, but often do not see as finding a place in church, in liturgy, in religious behavior. Once again, one is reminded of how little most Christians know of the faith and its expression in the Hebrew Bible, the faith of Judaism, which our Lord and the disciples lived in and knew so well. This brings up another angle explored and that is how prayer gives us a home, a sense of location and belonging and attachment. Once again it is the psalms that show us so definitively that our hearts are restless until they rest in God, in the reign or kingdom of God’s peace and love. The Lord as our shepherd, our protector, Zion, Jerusalem as our true home, God’s wanting us to sit round God’s table—feasting as the real taste of living with God. These are some of the seemingly endless riches of prayer the psalms contain.
Lohfink takes a look at meditation, so popular in recent years, and offers some provocative thoughts about it having more to offer than being mindful. He suggests that meditation makes history present to us, not just past history of the world, the church, or our country, but our own family and personal history. And there is a very good chapter on eucharistic prayer, prayer rooted in the thanksgiving with the bread and cup but extending further in our lives. One of the most touching chapters is the last, in which the author, in his eighties, has us follow prayer in his own life, from early childhood onwards, a revelation of discovery, disappointment, gratitude and deepening. It is not surprise that praying the psalms daily, the ancient prayer of Israel and the Church, sits at the center of prayer for him.
Gerhard Lohfink already has given us so many wonderful volumes. This is just one more.
Lohfink, Gerhard. Prayer Takes Us Home: The Theology and Practice of Christian Prayer. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2020. xi + 209 pages. $21.95. ISBN: 9780814688380.
REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.