I have some experience with prayer. Prayer is what brought me into relationship with God, the Creator of the Universe.
At fifteen—for reasons only God knows—I threw out a tendril of prayer. A tender shoot.
“God, if you’re there and you can accept me, give me a sign.”
I wanted to be a Christian.
(I recently realized, in conversation with a friend, how strange it was that even then, as a radical heathen, that I was somehow unworthy of God’s acceptance. More on that, maybe, another time.)
To make a long story short, God acquiesced, revealed Himself, and in doing so answered my feeble treatise.
Thus I, as we Evangelicals said, “came to Christ.”
But prayer is a funny thing; one of those funny things in faith: you can learn so much about it, and learn nothing at all.
An Urgent Prayer Request
Like most of us earthbound heaven-destined pilgrims I have a prayer list a mile long. Topping that prayer list are the no-surprises, the old stand-bys: the healing of a relative, the conversion of a loved one, and the salvation of the whole world (a modest proposal to be sure).
But, we recently added a new one, an urgent request which went right to the top: prayers for a new home.
As our small motley crew slowly increases in number my wife and I have come to the gradual realization that our modest 2-bedroom starter home is going to, rather rapidly, seem quite small. So we’ve been looking. And we found something this past week.
So, as we packed up our car and drove down to a family reunion—a six-hour drive to Ohio—we mulled it over the entire way. By the time we’d arrived, with only two stops to feed and change the baby, we’d decided to go ahead and make the owners an offer. We put in a long-distance call to our realtor.
To our horror, the property already had an offer.
Our realtor was genuinely empathetic and told us to wait, which was all that we could do. It was possible, after all, that the offer wouldn’t be accepted but we couldn’t do a thing, we couldn’t bring forward our offer until the current one had been dealt with.
As much as I wanted to beg her to drive on over to the property and shove our papers into the mailbox, we had to wait.
By mid-day on Saturday I think we both began to become a bit unhinged.
Rationalizing my Prayers
My wife’s family is incredible. A true clan if ever there was one and we had such a wonderful weekend together but what an odd experience—what a bizarre juxtaposition—as we fellowshipped over meals, games, and engrossing conversation, to be muttering prayers in between our sentences.
I did a lot of that.
I have no real problem praying. More and more these days, by the grace of God, it’s become almost instinctual. This new-found Catholic synergy helps and carrying a rosary in my pocket has never hurt either.
It’s almost instinctual. If something goes wrong, I pray.
If something major goes wrong, I freak out.
I’m still working to reconcile those two reactions—again, an infusion of grace, in due time.
But I do pray, often, but even my muttered, instinctual prayers are coloured with a kind of vain superiority. A pathetic attempt at rationalization. Like I’ve got a bead on God’s great plan and through this one well-crafted prayer I can unlock the whole Kingdom.
Here’s what I mean.
I prayed for a house. I really wanted that house. And I rationalized my way into knowing so deeply that God must just be waiting with bated breath to answer my holy prayer.
I began with a rather weak rationalization, “God’s going to give us this house because it would be an incredible example of how He answers prayer.” Despite the odds, I thought, the offer on the house will fall through, God will give us the house and all will see how Great is our God. Not to mention all those other times when I’ve prayed with equal zeal, had my prayers answered, and forgot entirely to give credit where credit is due. Oops.
My second rationalization was a bit of a better go, “God’s going to give us this house because we’ve been praying for the intercession of St. Anne and it would be an incredible example of the mighty prayers of the saints!” That’ll convince my non-Catholic friends and family, I thought. Tally ho!
Pathetic? I even thought about what we could name the house once we moved in, “St. Anne House.”
Credit where credit is due; this fool-proof prayer plan was guaranteed to work. It had to. God had to answer our prayers. God had to grant us that house because look how cool of a witness that would be. And, God, I even had a name for the place that would recognize the providence of the whole arrangement.
My third rationalization though was truly the masterpiece of my weekend’s prayer life, “God’s going to give us this house because look how hard we’re praying and look how much we’re relying on God!”
That’s what I mean about something you can learn so much about and not learn a thing. Fifteen years or prayer and that’s the best I’ve got?
Prayer as a Thirst for God
I love this quotation from St. Augustine,
Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst and ours.
And that’s exactly it.
Long story short, we didn’t get the house.
The other offer was all cash and waived a home inspection. In the end, we couldn’t even compete.
We were crushed.
See, the thing about prayer is we all know, really, how it works but are often afraid to look it right in the eyes. Why? Because sometimes prayer sucks.
Here’s what I mean.
Prayer is not rubbing the genie’s lamp for a new quick fix of whatever-it-is. Prayer is not what Joel Olsteen says. Or Creflo Dollar.
St. Augustine is right: prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst and ours. In that context, Augustine reminds us of the Samarian woman at the well. Jesus first asks her for a drink, only to turn it around and offer a drink to her in turn.
God, says Augustine, thirsts for us to know Him because He wants to give us all of Himself.
That is prayer.
Not that we get what we want, not that all of our answers are clear or our suffering is extinguished, but that we draw ever closer to God. That we drink ever deeper from that well.
That we humble ourselves, give of ourselves, and, ultimately, give up ourselves.
That is the stark reality of prayer. And sometimes that sucks.
The Fount of Every Blessing
For all my rationalizing, we didn’t get the house. Likewise for the miracle healing of my long-suffering relatives or the radical conversion of loved ones. These things are no further along than last month, or last year, but I don’t think that’s the point.
Prayer sometimes sucks because it isn’t what we wish it was, an easy one-size-fits-all solution. A lamp to rub. A panic button to press. An eccentric millionaire uncle with no heirs of his own at which to throw boatloads of hundred dollar bills.
I’ll take some.
Instead, prayer is something more akin to Job in the wilderness. Or St. Paul, shipwrecked again.
Because life is hard and God didn’t promise that it would be easy. On the contrary. But he did, assuredly, promise to be with us, and to hear our prayers. And to give us what we need. Which, of course, isn’t always what we want. Although we already knew that, too.
For all my rationalizing, we didn’t get the house, and we’re heartbroken. But we did get something. We got closer. Maybe by only mere inches—maybe less—but we drew up, a little bit nearer, to the standard of love and trust and abandonment that God wants of us.
To trust fully in Him, the Living Water.
To drink deeply of that well which satisfies.
To be transformed.
To be stripped of everything we hold dear, or dashed up against the rocks (again), or to lose out on something that we thought was perfect for us and to realize that everything we have, or plan, or know is but a pale shadow of what God wants for us. The desire, the thirst, He has to draw us nearer to Him. The Well. The Fount of Every Blessing.
And now that I’ve got it all figured out, maybe God will give me what I want.