A few summers back, my family was driving to Washington’s Air and Space Museum in our minivan. The parking options were pretty slim, so my wife asked our six-year old son if he would pray for a parking spot. He did, out loud, and then to everyone’s surprise he added: “…and make sure it has a broken meter so we don’t have to pay.” Everyone laughed for a moment until, lo and behold, a perfect parking space appeared right in front of them- with a broken meter!
Now, as we all know from our own experience, not every prayer request is granted so quickly. Just consider the case of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel. As we heard, she pleaded with Jesus that he might cure her daughter. At first, Jesus gave her no response. And then, after she continued to beg for help, Jesus quoted a proverb which referred to her people as dogs- something that might very easily have turned her away. Nevertheless, this desperate woman continued to persist, and because of her great faith, Jesus healed her little girl.
This little episode demonstrates the importance of persistence in prayer. First of all, persistence demonstrates to God that something is very important to us- and God likes to hear that sort of thing! Second, persistence teaches us patience, and reminds us of God’s infinite patience with us. And third, the need for persistence reflects the fact that we have a personal relationship wit a personal God, and that God isn’t a spigot of grace that we can simply turn on and off whenever we wish.
Persistence, however, doesn’t always translate into a prayer request being granted, as it did for the Canaanite woman. So why is it, then, that our prayers at times seem to go unanswered? It could be that we’re praying without faith, thinking that God either can’t or won’t answer our prayer. A priest friend of mine tells a funny story about a group of farmers who, in the middle of a drought, came together to pray for rain- but not one of them brought an umbrella. They, my friend concludes, were not praying with faith.
Another possible reason a prayer seems to go unanswered is because we’re asking for the wrong thing. As I’ve heard it explained before, God is a loving parent, and what parent would give their child a knife to play with? C. S. Lewis once speculated that we’ll probably spend eternity thanking God for the prayers he did not answer!
However, sometimes the problem is not our faith, or the nature of our request, but our own inactivity. Think of it this way: As Christians, we typically end our prayers by saying, “Through Christ our Lord.” By praying through Christ, however, we include ourselves in our requests, because we are members of the Body of Christ, the Church. In other words, when we pray for something through Christ, we take upon ourselves the responsibility, as best we can, to help answer our own prayer.
Consider the experience of an elderly nun who had prayed for a younger nun in her religious community. She personally liked this young nun, and was appreciative of her enthusiasm and energy. She knew that the young nun had been wrestling over whether or not she should leave the community, or even if the community wanted her at all. So the elderly nun prayed that she might stay, prayed that she might realize that she was wanted and valued, and prayed that God might give her the strength to see beyond her doubts. However, she never went, at any time, to speak with the young nun. She never told her how much she liked her, how much her gifts were treasured, and how much she wanted her to stay in the community. When the young nun left, the elderly nun was deeply upset.
Later on, a friend pointed out that she had never tried herself to bring about what she was asking God to do. She had offered her prayers through Christ Jesus, but had forgotten that she herself was part of Christ’s body. She had tried to make God responsible for solving a problem, and hadn’t taken any responsibility herself. (1)
St. John Chrysostom once wrote that “The sincerity of our prayer is determined by our willingness to work on its behalf.” For us, this means that if we pray for peace, we need to be peacemakers in our families, and in our communities. If we pray for good health, we need to adopt a healthy lifestyle. If we pray for a lonely person, we need to reach out and touch his or her life in some way. If we pray for the Church’s mission, we need to contribute our time, talent, and treasure. If we pray for the poor, we need to be faithful and generous stewards of God’s gifts to us. If we pray for a sick relative or friend, we need to help with their care as best we can. And if we pray to pass a test, we need to crack the books, and study. The old expression, “God helps those who help themselves,” has some truth to it. Or as St. Thomas Aquinas often stressed, “Grace builds on nature.”
Now, it has to be said that God doesn’t need our help in answering prayer. Instead, God asks us for our help; it’s all part of his plan. God freely chose to enter the human scene in Jesus, and he continues his presence in the human scene though us- we who are united with Jesus in his church. In a sense, we are extensions of Jesus, and God invites us to willingly give ourselves to his service. When we pray then, we need to present ourselves as part of the answer. In the words of St. Augustine, “Pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on you.”
(1) This illustration comes from Fr. Ronald Rolheiser’s book, The Holy Longing