“There is no God and I can prove it!” Roland declared. “Nothing I ever prayed for ever worked out.”
There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” —St. Teresa of Avila
I never argue about these things. From my perspective, Roland is in for a happy surprise. I did want to explore his views, and a couple of days later when we were alone in the pub, I asked him for an example.
He told me one instance where he prayed and prayed: his second wife took him to court for back child support payments. He’d been making the payments in cash all along. All he was praying for was fairness. Is that so hard for God? He was found guilty, and had to fork over months of payments again. To make it worse, he spent a night in jail for contempt of court for some closing remarks he offered to the judge.
I have lots of counseling experience, much of it related to prayer, and I have a very firm Faith. On the other hand, I have gone through periods of my life with Roland’s exact feelings.
I talk to God but the sky is empty.” ―Sylvia Plath
Why Are Some Prayers Answered and Others Not?
When I was a priest in Florida years ago I saw an astounding result of prayer. Peggy was the aunt of one of our monks, and she was visiting while passing through to her destination down the Gulf Coast. In her mid-50s, she was suffering from a back condition that did nothing but deteriorate. She couldn’t stand upright, and x-rays showed extreme curvature of her spine. Three of us put our hands on her head and prayed for healing. Two weeks later, back home, she had visited her doctor and the curvature of the spine was completely relieved.
No, we never duplicated it although we prayed with and for many. Of course, replication is the foundation of the Scientific Method, that makes all these healings from all over the world anecdotal.
That was a prayer answered. What made it so? Was it the state of mind we were in, or giving our strength to her? In our other prayers for healing the answer was, simply, No. Was it the words that were spoken, or the period of time we prayed for her, was it the intensity of the prayer? Panache Desai, and others, have said, “Every prayer is a thank you.” Gratitude was not something Roland felt in his situation.
You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.” ―Kahlil Gibran
God As Errand Boy
Please understand that I am not saying you can’t pray for relief, for strength, for courage, for peace. Or for anything you want to pray for.
My mother’s classic prayer, her fists clenched tightly by her sides and looking upward into the ether, was, “God give me STRENGTH!”
These are all things that I pray for and they do work. I don’t want that new car or fashionable shoes; my age plays into that, certainly.
But what of those prayers of Roland’s? He gave me a couple more examples, all his prayers being directed toward changing something around him. For my own spiritual practice, that would break one of my foundational rules: I believe that in the end all you can change is yourself.
That’s something that can lead your praying astray. Are you asking God to go out and get you a color TV (as Janis Joplin put it)?
Is that who you think God is?
Okay, So How Do I Pray?
If you’re not interested in prayer, you are shutting out of your life the greatest source of strength and a depth of experience you can achieve no other way.
If you want to learn to pray, you’ll find no end to books, audios, videos to show you the way.
And there are as many “right” ways to pray as there are people praying.
I have a starting place I’ve recommended for years.
Sit alone in silence for five minutes.
Peace, calm, eyes closed.
Prayer is simply a two-way conversation between you and God.” —Billy Graham
You have to open up to let God in. Go ahead, talk to God from your silence.
Many religions stress specific wording for prayers. Very appropriate for a congregation, not necessarily personally. If you like rote repetition prayers, like saying a Rosary, for example, I only ask if it feeds your spirit.
Roland Won’t Like This Answer
I have the answer to Roland’s experience, but he won’t like it.
The biggest thing I can say about prayer is: it’s a Mystery.
It’s the same with Faith, or even Love.
They have no empirical dimensions, they are beyond dimensions. You can’t touch or see them, they are as invisible as the air yet no less nourishing. I’d say no less vital.
As far as Roland goes, I asked him if he was happy with his life now, and he responded with a robust Yes. So maybe God (Creator, Spirit) did answer his prayers. Rather than holding a grudge, he might ask what he learned from those experiences.
I don’t think I’m likely to convince Roland to start praying. If he’s happy with his life, why should he?
For myself, I have seen many wonders from prayer. Praying doesn’t change God, but it will change you to greater heights of feeling and connection – and, freedom.
After all, God is the only game in town.
When every hope is gone, when helpers fail and comforts flee, I find that help arrives somehow, from I know not where. Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.” ―Mahatma Gandhi