Chapel Talk, Bethany College, Wednesday, March 31, 1999
I begin with a reading from Matthew: 27:45-50.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, This man is calling for Elijah. At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him. Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? What an easy topic! The question can be dispensed with very quickly. God does answer my prayers. Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you. The Bible says so. End of discussion.
My flippancy contains perfect theological truth, but remains emotionally and personally empty. It does not come close to persuading someone whose prayer is deeply felt, whose need is profound, and whose frustration at God’s silence threatens to erupt in agonized despair. Something else needs to be said than just interpreting verses from Scripture, as these bystanders do when hearing Jesus’ prayer.
There are, it must be said, various reasons why God does not answer our prayer. Some of these reasons are clearly not God’s problem, but ours.
In the first place, prayer may not be answered because the faith on which it rests is not genuine. I recall the agnostic Voltaire’s famous prayer: May God, if there is one, save my soul, if I have one. The only appropriate answer to this kind of prayer is laughter, and I am sure God chuckled along with Monsieur Voltaire, perhaps even longer than he.
In the second place, prayer may not be answered, because, while the faith on which it rests is genuine and real, the will to let the spirit carry out one’s faith in the rest of life is not there. I recall in this context the prayer of St. Augustine: O Lord give me chastity, but not yet.
In the third place, prayer may not be answered because it is designed to be heard by others, not by God. Jesus especially notes this in the Sermon on the Mount: Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. Jesus insists that true piety manifests itself in a sincere prayer that is done in secret outside the judgment of others. His point is not to discourage prayer with others; it is to discourage a form of prayer that is really about impressing others. Our prayer is only genuine if it is for God. And in fact, that is not always the case. Styles of public praying sometimes get in the way; they sometimes become the vehicles for personal pride and self-righteousness.
How, then can we insure that our prayers will be answered?
Perhaps the best clue we have to how we should pray is the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus prefaces this prayer with the words: Pray then in this way. We have often prayed the words that follow literally, forgetting that it was not just this prayer, but the manner of this prayer that Jesus was endorsing. What was the manner of this prayer?
First, we are to pray by acknowledging the absolute holiness of God’s name, the centrality of God’s claim over our lives. That claim implies that everything we want or need is in God’s hands, and that it is not functional to worry about anything. If I can truly pray “God will provide”, it is only because God’s holiness has already claimed me. But often, we are not at all sure that God will provide. We are like the Gentiles who Jesus says are the sort of people who worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” The Gentiles are thus not all those who are not Jews; they are all those who do not yet experience God’s providential care, but are dedicated instead to the human production of needless anxiety.
Immediately after the phrase “hallowed be thy name” comes “Thy kingdom come”. That phrase is the central mission of Jesus. And he contrasts the Gentiles who worry about food, drink, and clothing, with those who seek first the kingdom. This is the point at which I suspect many people’s understanding of prayer leaves off. For most, prayer is about what one does in one’s ongoing individual relation with God. But Jesus’ mission is not about how each relationship with God is individual (apologies to Kierkegaard). It is about the coming of the kingdom of God. And our prayer must always and centrally be as much about the coming of this Kingdom, as it is about God, and that is because the coming of the Kingdom is the meaning of the phrase “Thy will be done”. In many cases, I suspect our prayer is not “heard by God” because it has nothing to do with the coming of his kingdom, but with another kingdom, my own. Too often the anger and the pain that we feel when God does not answer our prayer comes from the fact that praying is a form of getting control over our world, and God has not cooperated very well with this project. The Kingdom of Control, the Kingdom of My-World-on-My-Terms, is forever to be contrasted with the Kingdom of Heaven, which on earth and in heaven is the Kingdom of God’s will.
The difference in attitude between these two kingdoms comes out in a short parable recently passed on to me via e-mail by an alumnus. The parable goes like this:
A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm at sea and only two of the men on it were able to swim to a small, desert-like island. The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agreed that they had no other recourse but to pray to God. However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the island.
The first thing they prayed for was food. The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the island and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man’s parcel of land remained barren. After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to pray for a wife. The next day, another ship was wrecked, and the only survivor was a woman who swam to his side of the island. On the other side of the island, the second man had nothing. Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, and more food. The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However, the second man still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship and decided to leave the second man on the island. He considered the other man unworthy to receive God’s blessings since none of his prayers had been answered. As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice from heaven booming, “Why are you leaving your companion on the island?” “My blessings are mine alone since I was the one who prayed for them”, the first man answered. “His prayers were all unanswered and so he does not deserve anything.” “You are mistaken!” the voice rebuked him. “He had only one prayer, which I answered faithfully. He prayed that all your prayers be answered!”
There is another way to put this. In the Kingdom of God, prayer is no longer mere words, however piously uttered, but a heart so much aflame with love that it cannot rest. Prayer is a vector, an arrow shot forth from the Spirit, if you will, that aims straight at the Christ one finds in the need, the despair, the loneliness, of those who have suffered. Prayer seeks God not just beyond the clouds, but through the body; not just in another realm, but through the Christ in all. Such prayer is more akin to a groaning of the Spirit, a groaning which St. Paul thought he heard all through creation. When we can no longer hear this groaning, it is because the spirit is not in us and there is no flame in our hearts. Prayer emanating from self-preoccupation cannot see God as all in all, as Paul says; the experience of God in such a deprived state is one of finding ourselves alone with the alone, as the philosopher Plotinus once said.
Prayer in the Kingdom and for the Kingdom is an outstretched hand: God’s hand outstretched to us before we ever pray; our hand outstretched to God’s; and our hand outstretched to every other hand in the kingdom. Prayer is always about all of us in Jesus and the spirit in relation to God, never simply about me and God.
Perhaps I can sum up what prayer is in two words: mystery and ecstasy.
In prayer, we encounter the mystery of God’s grace to all in the Kingdom. We pray for an elderly man’s recovery; he doesn’t recover, he dies. Our prayer, if it is genuine, and if it has ears to hear, begins to hear the suffering of others in the Kingdom, and begins to attend to their needs, their sorrow, their cries. God writes straight with crooked lines. The shortest distance between that point called me and that point called God includes an infinite number of other points called the kingdom of heaven. Prayer hallows us out for life in the kingdom. It helps us to become the instruments or answers to the prayers of others, and in doing so to hearken to the will of God.
The mystery is to be found in the fact that God’s answer is usually not all at once or complete, but partial and provisional and temporary. Prayer is never completed; it sets us on a journey through life with all those who do not have their daily bread, who have not been forgiven, whose sin is great.
Sometime just over 600 years ago, long about 1393, an English woman named Julian of Norwich, about whom little is known, wrote down the story of her lifetime spiritual struggle. She had had a revelation from Jesus perhaps twenty years earlier. One of the things that Jesus spoke to her was, as she says, “those sweet, cheering words, ‘I am the foundation of your praying’.’ She writes this after her long search: ‘From the time these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know what was our Lord’s meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding. “You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else–ever!” (Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Clifton Wolters, Penguin Books, pp. 211-212). We may say then that our prayers never seem to be heard when what we are looking for is some answer or other; but they are always answered when we realize that love is the only answer to our prayers that will be given or has ever been given.
It is difficult to bear this mystery; we need moments when the clouds part, moments to be reassured of God’s faithfulness, moments, if you will, of ecstasy. One important moment is in the sharing of bread and wine. But there are other moments as well. Just over a week ago, I ducked into the last hour of the dress rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah. It had been two years since I had heard the performance. And in the last chorus, a piece of music I have come to know well in the years I have sung the Messiah, I found one of those moments of prayerful ecstasy: Amen, repeated a thousand times, in a complex play of musical lines, that comes as close as anything perhaps to the sublime grandness of Jesus’ words in the Our Father: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Prayer ends in the ecstatic affirmation of the mystery of our life in the kingdom: So be it, Amen.
The prayer of Jesus on the cross, the prayer of one living in mystery and love, is ultimately answered by the prayer of ecstasy. I conclude with a reading from the Book of Revelation: Revelation 21: 1-5a:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”