Spring 1991, Vol.43 No. 4,

Edward J. van Merrienboer:
      The Prayer of the Just One

Petition, thanksgiving, adoration and celebration are hallmarks of the prayer of those who seek justice and the reign of God.

Edward J. van Merrienboer, OP, is Promoter of Justice and Peace for the international Order of Preachers. As adjunct faculty member of Aquinas Institute, he teaches courses on social justice in the spring semester at the school.

ANY study of Christian social action will almost certainly include some comment on the place of prayer. The context is often the personal spiritual journey of some important social activities, such as Dorothy Day, but they are mere examples of the great link which exists between spirituality and social action. In fact, much of the Christian response to poverty and injustice has been rooted in a profound experience of the spiritual life.

This article focuses attention on the role that prayer can take as one responds to social concerns. Does prayer shape a person's world view? Are there different models of prayer that are used at different moments in a person's struggle for a more just society? Does one's relationship with God change through experiences of the social sufferings of others? Lastly, can prayer be a form of estrangement from daily life? The objection that ecstasy requires a forgetfulness of this world must be addressed.


The terms "just one" or a just person prompts many images. For example, it makes me think of a list of qualities or virtues 'that a person would have to be considered just. Also, on the emotional level, I feel a resistance to such a term because it seems too pretentious for anyone to claim that a person could be just. Only God is just, and it is only through God's mercy that we live a good life.

Yet, the biblical foundation for the title of the just person leads to a different sort of reflection. When we read that a person is just, it is always within a context. For example, Noah is said to be a just person (Gn 6:9-12) because "he walked with God" in the midst of corruption. He was upright among his contemporaries who were lawless and corrupt. They contrived wicked schemes all day long to such a point that God "regretted having made human beings on earth and was grieved at heart" (Gn 6:6).

We could find other biblical examples of people who stood out in their society because they were atypical because of their goodness.(1) Part of being just, then, is to be the exception to one's culture when it is bent on doing evil. Today, the primary values of many cultures are not shaped by any sense of the common good or morality. In the United States, law, not morality, has become the source of social norms. The pivotal issue for most Americans is whether something is legal or not.

In the United States context, most social change movements have as their objective the changing or making of law. This phenomenon is not limited to our country but has become the international approach to human relationships. Powerful nations are able to use their military force to implement a United Nations mandate, but they cannot use that same force to secure human rights without such a mandate. Trade relations are regulated, not by morality, but by bilateral agreements. The weaker parties in these agreements often suffer some injustice because they lack the necessary power to secure their rights. Seldom is there any discussion of the common good in these actions.

In studies done in this country and globally, scholars conclude that most people equate law with morality. That is, the vast majority of people do not see any difference between human laws and walking with their God. The majority of the population will accept almost any human behavior if the behavior is protected by law.

However, these very same studies indicate that there is a minority who does not agree. At times, their number is quite small but they are still there. If twenty percent of a population rejects the use of war as a means to resolve international disputes, they, like Noah, are making moral options in the context of violence. They have found other sources for their behavior which go beyond legalism. Prayer can be one of the sources for their rejection of the cultural values of their society which are immoral.

The pace of the modern world is more rapid than it was even a few years ago. This pace creates a dull sense within people, and their ability to reflect is reduced. Even social ministers suffer from this pace and can find themselves responding without any sense of priority in mission. When we pray, we speak and we listen to God's voice. Sometimes we hear God letting us know what's important and what doesn't matter half as much as we might have thought five minutes earlier.


In order to get a proper perspective on the realities of daily life it is necessary to be able to rise above them. The person who is not in the air control tower cannot grasp what is happening on the runways! Ecstasy has been often described as "out of the body" experiences. Let us examine this notion in more depth. When the church prays, as community or as individuals, it moves out of the appearance and conditions of everyday life.

Prayer is an action which takes place at a different level from other events. People do not simply come together to recite fine formulas, to listen to interesting words or sing; rather we are dealing with self-forgetfulness. Many times I have experienced during a liturgical celebration that people have managed to forget themselves. They began to lose themselves in God, in the Crucified, in the inexpressible mystery of the Trinity. They allowed themselves to be grasped through signs of the divine presence.

But, I have also had an almost physical sense that during certain liturgies the congregation or ministers remained preoccupied with itself, either as individuals or as a group. People remained divided; they never took off, and their prayer seemed to fall back on themselves.

The ecstatic movement to which prayer draws us is our best guarantee of a level head in our everyday activity. Prayer can enable us to make proper value judgements about material things and to attribute importance only to those things that are really important. To live a moment of self-forgetfulness, of entry into the divine fire, helps us to acquire the viewpoint of God, the attitude of Christ. Prayer can be the entry point to the truth of things.

The richest truth that we can encounter in prayer is the reality of goodness in this world. The news as recorded by the media is often the worst aspects of human life. Violence, crime, political lies and scandal are the daily content of world events. Seldom do we hear about people who put themselves second for the sake of other people. It is rare that an honest person is the focus of a feature article. To be in touch with good news about humanity requires effort and perspective.

As the traffic controller at the airport uses radar to have a sense of the whole situation, prayer is our radar which can keep our life in the context of the whole situation. It is ironic that some people, when confronted with human needs, feel that they have little time to pray when in fact the greater the demands the more we need prayer. That needed sense of perspective is why we pray. Recalling the words of an African man who once said to me that everyone told him why he should pray but nobody told him how to pray, it is also necessary to look at methods of prayer for justice and peace.


When I speak of models or types of social justice prayer, I assume that the person involved in such experiences is involved in some efforts to make the world a better place to live. These involvements are the context of one's prayer. This context feeds the conversation which is taking place between humanity and God through prayer. The persons and events that we encounter shape the mode of our social justice prayer.

To work for people who are hungry, who are victims of domestic violence, or in prison for whatever reason places us in proximity to the poor and suffering. They are no longer "the poor" because they have names and personal stories. The battered woman is not a statistic but is Kathy, Mary and Joyce. The source of her pain is someone whom she knows. Through her we enter into the world of domestic violence, but where do we find God in her broken nose? What does God have to say to an involved bystander?

1) Petition

The painful lives of people often leads to prayers of petition. We know that the problems are much bigger than our ability, and we seek an ally in God because there is strength in the divine. It is common to ask God to change the person who is the cause of this suffering, to convert the sinner is our plea. Or, we pray for an increase of courage for this victim so that she can make the hard choices to make a better life for herself.

Suffering wears many masks, but through prayer we are able to expose the face of Christ under those masks. By uniting the suffering of ordinary people with the suffering of Christ we can enter into the paschal mystery which has hope as its finality. What is unique about the suffering of Jesus is that it became the journey to eternal life. Our prayer of petition is a plea to share in some small way in that life giving power.

When the number of people to be fed is greater than the soup and bread available today, we pray for an increase in generosity so that no hungry person is turned away. It is common to hear of small "miracles" which occur in food kitchens, shelters, and social action centers. Someone unknown arrives with just the things needed or with the money that is needed to purchase what was needed. Yes, God does hear the cry of the poor through our prayers (Ps 27:7).

2) Thanksgiving

These answers naturally lead to a second model of social justice prayer, one of thanks. The social apostolate is so demanding that a sense of gratitude is a normal attitude when success is achieved. Foundational to this gratitude is the truth that the reign of God is coming into being in each of these small events. Every good act moves us toward a society which is just, participative and sustainable for humanity. "Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven" is our joy with God because God is hoping for this time of good for the world.

Joy is closely associated with the experience of hope. Loss of hope frequently takes the form of alienation. The problem of alienation is particularly severe for those who are unemployed, homeless, or marginalized in some other way. Christian prayer, especially in community, can encourage people to get more in touch with the hope that is in them. It can enable us to take account of the truth that hope is in fact a gift from God for which we give thanks.

What I am saying about thanks may seem rather obvious, but a reading of columns in the newspaper would indicate otherwise. Dear Abby, Miss Manners, or Ann Landers frequently address the problem of people who never say thanks. Gifts are given for weddings, births, and graduations with no acknowledgments. Even social ministers can forget to say thanks when needed help is forthcoming. Some benefactors have told me that the only way that they know that their gift was received is that the check has cleared their bank account. True, this is a cultural problem, but it is also a problem of spirituality because gift is foundational to faith development. We are the product of the gift of God's creation.

The story of the cure of the ten lepers reveals an expectation on the part of God that we show thanks (Lk 17: 11-19). One would think that gratitude would have been the obvious ending of the story. But it is only the Samaritan who has this disposition of the prayer of thanks. "Finding himself cured, one of them turned back praising God at the top of this voice and threw himself prostrate at the feet of Jesus and thanked him" with the knowledge that the God of Jesus is a gift giver.

3) Adoration

Closely linked with the attitude of thanks is the prayer of adoration. This prayer is found in the story of the transfiguration of Jesus (Lk 9:28-35). It is rooted in experiences of seeing more fully the face of God during our faith journey. This method of prayer requires an effort on our part to see beyond the surface of human experience. Dorothy Day once put it this way, "reach out to eternity." Often in private. and passionate ways people reach out to their beloved God. A small child living in a shelter in Denver told me that once when she was on a swing she let herself swing into Jesus' arms. She said that they were so strong and warm that she just liked to think about those arms.

A few weeks after she told me this, I found a holy card of Jesus as a carpenter with his arms bare and strong. I gave the card to the little girl and her response was, "Oh, now I can just look at those arms." Adoration is like looking; adoration is its own goal. Her experience of Jesus has encouraged me to just take time to "look" at Jesus.

Most of us have some photos of people we love. At times when we miss them or are simply far away we might find ourselves taking out those photos to be with those loved ones. In a similar way, in those times when we need to center ourselves in the midst of the struggles for justice and peace we have to take time to recall the features of our God. And, like Peter during the transfiguration we can say, "Master, it is wonderful for us to be here."

Once in Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker soup kitchen a "wino" arrived angry and cursing. He was dirty, with virtually no teeth and a terrible tic in one of his eyes. Dorothy told her fellow workers, "For all we know he might be God come here to test us, so let us treat him as an honored guest and look at his face as if it is the most beautiful one we can imagine." I believe that she was asking her fellow workers and us to enter into a modern experience of transfiguration through the poorest of this earth.

Over the years, I have had various contacts with poor people throughout the world, but all of these contacts have lead me to the same truth that in ugliness there is a profound beauty. In their broken bodies I have discovered their inner core which is God. Why is it after seeing all the great buildings of the world, it is these faces which I remember most in prayer?

4) Celebration

The last model of prayer I would like to speak of in the context of the search for justice is celebration. In the scriptures we find two approaches to the experience of celebration. The Hebrews ask, "How can we sing a song in an alien land?" On Palm Sunday Jesus tells us that the very stones will cry out if the children are made to be silent in his presence. Through social ministry we become more aware of the fact that we do indeed live in an alien land or even an alien world because so many values are turned away from the reign of God. But we are also reminded of the truth of grace in the world.

This situation is not new to Christians who for almost two thousand years have tried to give a word of hope to the poor and oppressed. Caring Christians will always be aware that much still must be accomplished. This becomes painful at moments of social regression as we are in now. We know that modern models of development have become a source of new suffering for many. Peace simply means that there are no great conflicts while regional wars continue, and the ideology of self achievement grows stronger. Our social hope is in danger because debts have placed a mortgage on the future of those who are not even born yet. Can we take time to celebrate in such a context?

Mary, the mother of God, gives us some direction in her victory song, the Magnificat, "My spirit rejoices in God my savior" because much has already been accomplished. Her song is also the song of the Church each day in the evening during the Liturgy of the Hours. The people of God through this prayer sing of what has been accomplished and what is still to be done; it is a song of "intermezzo" to be taken during the process of work.

This last model of prayer, the prayer of celebration, is a challenge to us as Christians to give it all to God in the faith of the Risen Christ. We know that the final word is a great joke on sin. "He who is enthroned in the heavens laughs, Yahweh makes a mockery of them, then in his anger rebukes them, in his rage he strikes them with terror" (Ps 2:4-5). Suffering and death will not prevail in spite of its apparent power in the world. In our prayer of celebration we are reminded as a community of faith that this world will come to justice and peace.

It is in these moments of celebration prayer that many of us are re-committed to the struggle of the poor and oppressed. It is in this experience of taking time out to celebrate that we keep in touch with the mystery of Jesus whom even the stones recognize. With Mary, we are able to sing of the past accomplished, in justice and the future victory which will bring true peace. God is with us always; there is no reason to fear, only to celebrate.


In prayer we are speaking to God who occupies some image in our being. When we are asking, thanking, praising, and celebrating with God we are with someone. The person occupies some space in our mental eye. In Matthew 25:31-46, we see God in two locations in the narrative. The Son of Man is escorted by all the angels and takes his seat on his throne. This is a royal image of someone with great power and prestige. This God can give us what we want and is a God to be respected. He holds within him the power of eternal life in glory.

I have often found this image of God among poor people who wonder what God thinks of their suffering world. A small child in a favela in Rio must wonder what the great figure of Christ on the hill thinks of so much misery. What is this great ruler going to do about such situations?

Once when I was speaking with some miners in South Africa, they told me of their hard life in the compounds and the unjust pay they received for their labor. After many hours in a very hot and close room, I began to think about where God fit into all of this search for gold under the earth. I asked the men the question, "Where do you find God in this mine?" They responded without hesitation "God was a miner!"

Their image of God is also rooted in the story of Matthew 25, but they found their savior not on the throne but among the least. In their concrete situation, God was one of them, the very least in their society. This image of God is as valid as the all powerful wonder-worker. When I spoke with these miners about their prayer life, they never said that they asked God to fix everything for them. You see, God was as helpless in the mine as they were.

Their prayer took on the character of solidarity. They found great hope in the fact that God was daily in their experience, that God knew them better than anyone in this world. These men told me that only God could celebrate with them because only after many hard days were they able to know rest. We all know the slogan, "thank God it's Friday." But they said it differently, "God is thankful it's Friday." For these oppressed people of South Africa, even God needed some rest from the exploitation of the Anglo-American company.

That experience has prompted me to ask other suffering people where they find God in their existence. For many Afro-Americans I have known, the suffering Jesus has been their image. Also, the sweet Jesus of the Gospel hymn is one who gives them comfort. The reason that the many crucifixes of Latin America are so bloody is that these suffering people want to be with a God who knows their pain.

This came home to me in a dramatic way once when I was in the jungle region of Brazil. An old priest who was deformed from birth had died, and the poorest people of the region thought of him as "their priest." At his funeral a woman gave a testament about him in these words:

Look at him! He is so ugly that he could be a monster but we all went to him. In our pain and with our problems we were ugly, but we were not ashamed in his presence. But when we left him we felt beautiful again. He was our priest because he never made us ashamed because he knew all about pain.
This priest was for these people what the suffering Christ is for the world: an image of all our pain. We are at home with such a person because they know our prayer before we speak it.


A narrow understanding of prayer could lead a person to practice a form of escape from this world. It could be the "opiate" which Marx accused religion of being for the masses. There are approaches to prayer which can make a person less committed to human history. These prayers of flight have been part of the history of Christian spirituality, but is it Christianity at its best?

As we become more enriched by the scriptures in our prayer life, we see that the just one is that person who in the midst of so much confusion about values can walk with God. The God to whom we pray is so involved in human history that he became incarnated in that history through Jesus of Nazareth. It is this Jesus who teaches us to pray for our daily bread.

God, as revealed by Jesus Christ, has a personal concern for each human being (Mt 6:28, Lk 12:27). There are people on this earth who do not have documents to prove that they exist, but God knows them. The women of this age still find a marvel in Jesus as did the woman at the well (Jn 4:1-30). The poor find a solidarity with their God who resides among the "least." And, the friends of the poor find strength in that Good Samaritan who was neighbor to the one in need.


  1. Cf. Lv 19:36; Mt 1:19; Mk 6:20; Lk 2:25, 15:7, 23:50; Acts 3:14, 7:52, 22:14.