I know not what I should ask of You.
You and You alone know my needs.
You love me more than I am able to love You.
Oh Father, grant to me, Your servant, all for which I cannot ask.
I dare not ask for a cross, nor for consolation.
I dare only to stand in your presence.
My heart is open to You.
You see my needs I’m unaware of.
Behold and lift me up!
In your presence I stand,
awed and silenced by Your will and Your judgments,
Which my mind cannot penetrate.
I offer myself to You as a sacrifice.
No other desire is mine but to fulfill Your will.
Teach me how to pray.
Pray You Yourself in me.
The teaching community has mixed feelings about the common classroom phrase: “I don’t know.” Some teachers balk at it. “You don’t know?” they respond to students, “But I just taught you! At least get us started with an idea!” Other teachers welcome the “I don’t know” with open arms. To admit one’s lack of knowledge is a starting place in itself. I have been both teachers. If I’m honest, it depends on my fatigue level, and how much my patience has already been tried that day. Lord, be with me.
When I have a moment to reflect on this concept of “I don’t know,” I find myself admiring the students who openly admit it. As a student, having to respond “I don’t know” to a teacher was my worst nightmare. I would soften it with “I’m not sure” or I would fake my way through a nonanswer. Anything to avoid admitting my own ignorance.
The prayer of St. Philaret is a sharp contrast to this human impulse. St. Philaret, in much more beautiful words, admits, “Lord, I don’t know.” When I’m on autopilot, I tend to walk around with a sense that I know God pretty well, and who He is, and what He expects of me, and that I’m probably doing just fine, if I even think about God at all. But St. Philaret’s prayer forces me to sit with my ignorance, and instead of fearing it or fighting against it, to embrace it and offer it to God.
This past year has thrown many of us into an unknown situation where we’ve had to embrace our lack of understanding and knowledge even more than before. Mixed messages from health officials and political leaders, from religious communities and family and friends, about the coronavirus and how to best mitigate it has at times left me feeling confused and helpless. This uncertainty pervaded every aspect of our lives, throwing a shroud of doubt over what we soon realized were foundational aspects of our lives: Will I ever go back to work? Will I see my grandmother again? Will I see my family at Christmas? Is the grocery store dangerous? When can I hug my friends, my family? When, if ever, can I shake hands with a stranger? Questions like these are accompanied by scary acknowledgements: I’m alone. I’m confused. I’m afraid. What’s next? There weren’t answers to these questions, nor clear remedies to these statements, for a long time. Some of the questions remain unanswered as this pandemic continues.
In his prayer, St. Philaret encourages us not to seek answers to these questions, but instead, to relinquish them to God. “Oh Lord, I know not what I should ask of You.” This prayer, from the very first line, is surrender. Until I heard this prayer, I never started my personal prayer time with anything close to this sentiment. I would immediately start reflecting on my day, or my worries, and ask God to fix them. Now, St. Philaret’s prayer grounds me in the reality of who God is; the all-loving and all-knowing God of the universe, who loves me more than I can fathom and who knows what is best for me. St. Paul writes that “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). I stand before God and I must acknowledge that I cannot see clearly, while filled with hope that as I turn to face Him in this prayer, I do so in anticipation of that ultimate joy, to be face to face with God.
“I don’t know” is just the starting place for St. Philaret. In similar fashion to St. Patrick’s “Christ with me” in the prayer I wrote about last week, St. Philaret elaborates so that we can understand the full weight of this sentiment. He goes on to say, “I dare not ask for a cross, nor for consolation.” If I don’t know what I need, can I really ask to be freed from a hard situation? What if what I really need is the strength to persevere not only through this, but through an even more challenging situation that is coming? Instead of asking for a burden to be lifted, St. Philaret cries, “Behold and lift me up!”
This is a hard prayer to pray. Sometimes I can’t fully say it. I want relief from my troubles too badly! And it is certainly not wrong to ask for relief. We petition God multiple times in the liturgy for peace, for health, for His presence among those we know who are sick, who are suffering. God wants to hear the truth of our hearts, and Jesus tells us to “ask, and you shall receive” (Matthew 7:7). But what inner transformation might be possible if what we ask of God is His will for our lives, whatever that may be, instead of our own?
St. Philaret ends his prayer with, “Teach me how to pray.” Prayer, which is conversation with God, is in some senses straightforward and simple. And yet, prayer is also a profound mystery, a transcendent relationship with the God of the universe. As people created by God and in His image, the ability and desire to pray is inherent in us; at the same time, we see in that mirror dimly. Our fallen world can shroud the practice of prayer in ambiguity. But Christ, who dwells in us, can teach us how to pray: “Pray You Yourself in Me,” St. Philaret concludes.
I’ve written four blog posts about prayer, and it seems a fitting end to acknowledge that I don’t know the best way to pray. I have to pray this prayer and ask God to teach me how. To help me relinquish what I think I know, and surrender to the fullness of God and His will for me. As you continue on your Lenten journey, and as you continue to face the uncertainties of our world and in your own life, may you learn a bit more about what it means to pray, and may God pray within you.
Elizabeth is a YES leader and a 9th grade English teacher in a traditionally underserved community in Los Angeles. She is passionate about bringing the love of Christ into every aspect of her work with young people, motivated by the words of Father Greg Boyle: “Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.”