|Jesus healing Bartimaeus | by William Blake|
Mom, my friend Becky, and I went to an Unbound conference last fall. (See mom's far more interesting post about the conference HERE.) I was excited and wanted to give mom an experience of the charisms in the Catholic Church. I had recommended the book Unbound to Becky but knew she hadn't had a chance to read it. I had given my copy of the book to mom and she had read part of it quite a while ago. She felt a little bit overwhelmed by the need to read the book in the small amount of time remaining before the beginning of the conference. But I assured her that she would not need to have finished the book in order to benefit from the conference.
It started on a Friday night. Somehow I miscommunicated the time and Becky arrived an hour early before any other attendees had arrived and while the venue was still being set up. Mom arrived a little bit later after having driven 8 hours from VT. A praise and worship band was suppose to perform during the hour devoted to signing in the attendees but for some reason they did not start until the end of that hour. Because of this the actual conference started an hour late. It was clear that Neal Lozano (author of Unbound) and his wife were also tired from their own hectic traveling and the conveners wanted to finish up close to the scheduled ending time because the talks started early the next day and many of us had a long commute. Mom and Becky were staying at my place which was about a 45 minute drive. So Neal and his wife sort of abbreviated and rushed through their presentations. This may have been ok for those who had read Unbound, but for those unfamiliar with the book it was quite confusing. On one side I saw my poor mom fighting sleep and on the other side I saw Becky struggling to piece together the bits of information that were presented without a thorough explanation of the underlying premise.
After we adjourned for the night, mom and Becky expressed their confusion and disappointment and I couldn't help feeling demoralized and unexcited that we had another full day of this. I prayed and prayed and prayed and asked the Blessed Virgin Mary to intervene that we might benefit spiritually from day 2. Fortunately, graces must have been raining down on everyone involved with the conference, because the next day we were given a coherent explanation of the Unbound method--five keys to inner healing and spiritual freedom--and profound blessings occurred. Why do I mention all of this? Because I have been meditating on the type of petitionary prayer I had engaged in that Friday night and my subsequent response. This is a petition for divine assistance to resolve a perfectly natural problem by perfectly ordinary means.
The problem was as follows. We weren't understanding the message of the presenters (due to lack of clarity, fatigue on both sides, whatever) and, therefore, were unable to benefit spiritually or even intellectually from the experience. And this negative experience the first night had enkindled within us the expectation that the next day would not be any better and, therefore, would be a huge waste of time and money. And so the attendees and presenters alike needed a sort of conversion and restoration of unity that would allow us to understand each other and allow the Holy Spirit to work. This is what I asked for in prayer.
The next day the problem was, in fact, resolved. Whether it be due to a good night's sleep or a healthy breakfast or simply a better organization of presentations for the second day, there was a marked improvement over the first night. So this happened in response to my prayer, right? For the Missionaries of Charity the answer is simple and obvious. Yes. The prayer was answered. The nuns believe that when they pray for something and it happens, it was God's will. When they pray for something and it doesn't happen, it must not have been God's will so it's a good thing that it didn't happen. Either way, God answered the prayer.
But it's tough to have the mind of a skeptic. Most of the time such an ordinary resolution of a problem doesn't even register in my mind as a possible response to prayer and so I forget that I ever prayed for divine assistance in the first place. When I do happen to remember that I had prayed for such an outcome, my skeptic's mind tells me that things might have played out exactly as they did even if I hadn't spent that time in prayer Friday night. Or perhaps, I tell myself, someone else was praying for the same intention and God answered her prayer. I typically feel as though humility prohibits me from presuming that my own prayer had any effect on the course of events and I shrink from 'taking credit' for moving the Hand of God. But a thorough examination of conscience reveals the sinfulness of this line of thinking.
Sometimes I think about certain miracles that I've asked for in prayer, e.g. miraculous healings, and how they never happened. Then I observe how people who are more advanced and faithful in prayer tend to obtain more of these miracles. Intellectually, this comes as no surprise. If a person remains faithful and spends more time in prayer then he/she will become more conformed to God's will and will have a better idea of what to ask for in prayer, therefore, his/her 'success rate' will increase over time simply because he/she is asking for the 'right' things. Also, we need to ask for the right things for the right reasons. Joe's prayer for Jeanie's miraculous healing may be answered because he has genuine compassion for her in her suffering and is concerned for her salvation and will humbly praise and thank God 'in the midst of the assembly' when this healing occurs. However, I may have been praying for Jeanie's miraculous healing for months already with no effect because I'm more concerned with glorifying myself by racking up a list of miracles than I am with alleviating Jeanie's suffering.
The system of intercessory prayer is complex because many people are praying for many things and for a variety of reasons. And when praying for another person one has to take into account the spiritual state of that person and whether or not that person, for example, wants to be healed and/or will benefit spiritually from such a healing. Finally we have to take into account God's overarching plan for humanity, which is something we can't even begin to understand. And so we have this infinitely complex system of intercessory prayer which can only be seen clearly in very isolated, highly constrained events. This is why the Vatican's process for verifying miracles in support of a canonization is very particular and can take more than ten years.
|Miracle of the Sun | Fatima, Portugal | October 13, 1917|
And so it seems humble to say that I can't understand the mystery of prayer and, therefore, will not presume that God has answered my prayer in such unexciting cases as the Unbound conference. Perhaps I am not holy enough or do not have strong enough faith to pray effectively, how should I know? But notice how much emphasis this puts on me. In contrast to the Missionaries of Charity whose focus is on God and what He wants to give, my focus is on myself and how capable I am of obtaining from God what I think He should give. To say that I'm not worthy of obtaining graces from God in response to my prayers, as though I need to practice more and get better at it in order to obtain what I want, is false humility. The Missionaries of Charity assume, based on the words of Jesus in the Gospels, that no matter what the outcome God has certainly responded to their prayers. My refusal to concede that God does, in fact, respond to my prayer requests has at least two unfortunate consequences: 1.) a utilitarian attitude toward the spiritual life, in which my devotion to prayer is a means of obtaining a certain power over God and the ability to evoke a certain response, and 2.) a lack of recognition of and gratitude for the action of the Holy Spirit in my life. Sinfulness has so easily crept into my attitude toward prayer. This is why a regular and thorough examination of conscience is so important.
And so, with the help of God's grace, I firmly resolve to confess my sins, do penance, and amend my life. Amen.