We do many things in prayer. Sometimes we thank God for things. Sometimes we praise God. But sometimes we ask God for things. We are encouraged, in fact, to present our needs to God. But this is odd. Doesn’t God already know what we need? Furthermore, if God is eternal, then it seems as though God could not change. So why present my needs to God if he can’t do anything about it?
These are deep questions about the very meaning of prayer. In this post, I would like to offer a hypothetical answer. My answer turns on the concept of a sacrament. This concept may be the central concept of Catholic Christianity. A sacrament is an instrument used by God to bless, heal, or convey grace. The objects used by God in this way are entirely ordinary but God has set them aside to use them as a vehicle of grace. We can understand the nation of Israel as a sacrament used to bless the world. The scriptures can be understood sacramentally. So can Jesus.
But what about prayer? Could prayer be a sacrament? It seems likely. God could in fact use people’s prayers as a vehicle for blessing or conveying grace. How would this work? Well, God could choose to bless my mom, for example, by answering my prayers for her. The answering of my prayer is the particular form or way in which God blesses my mom. If you will, my prayer opens up a channel that God can then use to convey blessings or grace. Much in the way that God brings grace through the baptismal waters why can’t he use prayers in the same way? If we understand prayers in this sense, then petitionary prayer seems to make more sense as part of the broader sacramental system by which God blesses the world. Of course, God could bless the world without the use of any physical element. Nevertheless, he seems to choose to use sacraments to convey his grace. Perhaps prayer is just another one of these sacraments.