In the early years of learning to play the piano, one of the pieces which caught my imagination was the Harmonious Blacksmith by Handel. Apparently inspired by the rhythmic sounds coming a blacksmith’s forge, it begins with a relatively simple melody which expresses a sense of joy in response to the beat of the blacksmith’s hammer. But Handel wasn’t content to leave it as a short piece. He began to play around with what he had written – the theme – and created a different melody which followed the shape – the rise and fall – of the first and kept the same pattern of harmony underneath. This was the first variation on the theme. After that he did it again, and then again, creating six variations in all. Many composers have done similar things, experimenting with different ways of expressing the same musical idea, pushing the boundaries to find out how far they can go before one theme transforms into a totally new one.
I think prayer can be a bit like that. When we are waiting for what seems like a long time for answers we are encouraged to be persistent. But praying the same thing over and over again can become a numbing experience. How many times have you prayed ‘Our Father who art in heaven…’ and got to the end of the prayer without being conscious of what you were praying? And does that matter? Given that our minds work on different levels of consciousness, the activity may still have value, but on a conscious level many have given up praying for a particular issue too soon because the answers haven’t come quickly enough and the prayer loses the passion which first inspired it.
Finding the variations on the theme is a challenging process and, I believe, God inspired. When God makes us wait for his answers he has something new to teach us – and remember that prayer is more about changing our minds and making us act rather than changing God’s mind or making him act. As we explore different angles (variations) on our prayer request (the theme), by praying for the same thing in different ways, we gain in understanding of what we are praying for. And when such prayers are answered they are usually more than simply lessons in persistence and patience; they do more than expand our understanding. The theme has expressed our passion; the variations are God’s way of intensifying that passion until we have no option but to act in response to that passion. And God smiles, because we got the message! He has answered our prayer!