When Prayer Goes Wrong

I think I fasted on Saturday. It didn’t feel very penitential, but I was also very busy and didn’t have much time to do a good job. But I did the basics. Followed the rules.

I was teaching a course in Fargo, an hour south of Grand Forks, for a doctoral cohort of school administrators. The reading for the day was Marx.

I like to pray for things with Gethsemane in mind. Job, too. I can only imagine the apostles, praying to God, begging for their Rabbi to be spared. They didn’t understand, but I’m sure they meant it. I like this agonizing and mysterious disappointment that serious prayer can bring.

I suppose it has gone too far. My prayers are rarely earnest in the simple supplications I used to make, crying out for Jesus to give me strength to sack the quarterback. Stupid prayers, but honest ones.

These sorts of prayers can never end well. If I get what I asked for, and thank and praise God for it, there is an absurd comedy to the whole thing. If I don’t, I can hardly hold it against God, but I can still be bitter about it. The small tragedies of unanswered prayers  have taught me a great deal about the secret and silent life of prayers unspoken.

I don’t think of prayer as a purely intentional thing. I think we all pray in very simple, but very real ways. Desire. This is where a certain, secular life of prayer dwells. Erotic prayer: the prayers we pray constantly although, most of the time, we are too scared or broken to utter them aloud or hope for them to be true.

When Francis called to pray for Syria, I obeyed for reasons that are hardly interesting to write about. While I fasted in the most skeletal sense, I didn’t really feel like I prayed at all. I just went through the motions. Worst of all, I expected it to fail, to produce the rich failure that unanswered prayers so often bring. I even thought about my reflection on unanswered prayers rising to God and ending in violence, war, and bloodshed.

It was going to be so poignant, deadly, and beautiful. Calvary.

Now, they tell us, we may not be going to war anymore and peace seems within reach. Will I accept the offering of an answered prayer, a testament to the efficacy and power of the mystical petition?

I’m not sure. I feel cautious about it. What will this say about the next war, the next farce, the next terror that prayers leave untouched on the surface, the cemetery and the battle field. Will it degrade them? Will we lose the forsaken?

The standard reading of St. Francis’ reaction to God’s command to rebuild the Church sees Francis as something of a holy idiot. Oh, silly Francis, that blessed fool, trying to fix a leaky roof when God wanted him to found a spiritual movement.

There may be another, better reading. Maybe Francis got it exactly right. His literal work and labor. His obedience and love of the brick and mortar and stone. His hands. Was Christ wasting his time going to weddings? Who knows?

I don’t know what prayer is or what it is for. The Church teaches with clarity, so they say, but I am not very good at understanding it all.

I do know that prayer cannot be defensive, a way to keep the last shreds of credibility it can muster after the abuse of Osteen and friends. Maybe prayer is like love. Never jealous. Maybe prayer doesn’t care what people think.

Pope Francis seems to be a man of prayer and he asked me to pray and fast. The latter was easy enough, but the former got away from me. But that’s the real miracle in my life. Maybe it worked, or at least maybe it forced me to imagine a prayer that isn’t quite so perfect and subtle.

What comes of Syria today and tomorrow and the Middle East and world wars and despots and empires, I do not know. But I can pray.

Perhaps this is why prayer is more than what we want or what we want to think we want. Perhaps this is what prayer is: the ability to accept the offering, to bless it, make it holy and take it as a gift, to lose it without losing anything, to go to the wedding — and dance.

Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us.

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