(Luke 11:1-13) Some years back, a friend of ours, Fr. Jeremiah, flew home to spend the Christmas holidays with his sister and her family. He told me that every morning he stood in front of their living room window with his arms outstretched in prayer. His four-year-old nephew was completely mystified by this behaviour.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “Who are you talking to?” Fr. Jeremiah patiently explained that he was talking to God. He told him that when he stood by the window and lifted up his arms, it made him feel closer to God – like he was reaching up to heaven.
“But why do you talk to Him if you can’t see Him?” the boy persisted.
Fr. Jeremiah assured him that God is there, even though we can’t see Him. “God is not only there,” Fr. Jeremiah continued, “but He also hears and answers all of our prayers.”
“Really? Every prayer?!!!” The little boy was astounded. He was quiet for a few moments, seemingly deep in thought. Then he marched over to the window, lifted up his arms and triumphantly shouted, “God, send toys!!!”
As charming as this little story is, it reveals an important truth about how we, too, should approach God in prayer. We first need to have faith, to believe that God exists and that He is listening. But what if your faith is shaky? Does this mean that you shouldn’t pray? Like any loving father, God is happy to hear from us at any time, regardless of how long it has been since we last talked to Him or how little confidence we have in His love.
Many years ago, at the start of my own spiritual journey, I realized that my faith was sorely lacking. Somehow my rationalistic mind just couldn’t wrap itself around the fact that God is real, that He loved me, and that He wanted to enter into a relationship with me. Despite my lack of faith, I really wanted to believe. But I felt like a hypocrite, praying to God when I didn’t really believe in Him. Fr. Jeremiah assured me that that was okay. We don’t go to the doctor when we are well; we go when we are sick. “Jesus is the Divine Physician,” he said, “and He can’t heal our souls if we don’t tell Him what hurts.”1 And so I sat in the rocking chair in my front room each day with a rosary in one hand and a “How to Pray the Rosary” pamphlet in the other – and I prayed for the gift of faith. Many years later, I realized that my prayer had been answered, even though I’m not sure exactly when that happened. If you feel that you need more faith, you can ask for it. Jesus promised, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Lk 11:9).
The Old Testament patriarch, Abraham, modeled a second fundamental attitude that is important when we pray: humility. In Genesis 18:27 – in the middle of his prayer to God – Abraham said, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” It was as though Abraham suddenly realized how audacious it was that he should be talking to God, that he should be begging God to spare the city of Sodom from destruction. Whether we realize it or not, Abraham speaks for us all. We are all dust and ashes. We are all completely unworthy to come before the Lord. We are only creatures; He is our Creator. We must first recognize our own weaknesses and limitations before we can comprehend how much we depend on Him.
But why do we need to pray anyway? Doesn’t Scripture tell us that God knows what we need even before we ask? (cf. Mt 6:8). One of the reasons that God doesn’t act until we ask is that He respects our freedom. He gives us a choice. We don’t have to turn to Him for help. As long as we insist on trying to do things our own way, God is not going to act in our lives. He waits – patiently, and with great love and compassion – until we are ready to bring our needs to Him in prayer.
Finally, we need to pray with perseverance. Even if we feel that our prayer is not doing any good. Even if it seems like God is not listening. We must have faith that God really does hear and answer every prayer. Of course, He doesn’t always answer when – or in the way – that we expect Him to. Furthermore, without realizing it, we sometimes ask for things that wouldn’t be good for us. Like any loving parent, God will say “no” if we ask for things that would bring us harm. St. Augustine writes, “Did you ask and not get what you wanted? Trust in your Father. If it would have been good for you, you would have received it.”2 And so we pray, “Thy will be done,” because we trust that God knows best.
We should never hesitate to talk to God about whatever is on our hearts, even if we aren’t certain that it is the right thing to ask. Imagine for a moment that you are a patient who is sick and under a doctor’s care. You would love a glass of wine, but you aren’t sure if you should ask. St. Augustine says that you should bring it up with the doctor anyway. “It may do you no harm,” he says, “and in fact, it may even do you good! But at the same time, you shouldn’t take it to heart if the doctor tells you that you can’t have a glass of wine.” He continued, “If we are prepared to do whatever the ‘physicians of our bodies’ tell us to do, how much more should we be prepared to accept the “no” of our Divine Physician, who is the Creator and Restorer of both our bodies and our souls!”3
Prayer is, at heart, an intimate conversation with God, an exchange with the One who loves and cares for us. But as in every good conversation, we can’t do all of the talking; we must also listen. Once we have entered into that true dialogue, we will find that we have gone beyond those first seeds of faith. We won’t just believe in God – we will have come to know Him.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Cf. Lk 5:31-32.
2 St. Augustine, Sermon 80, 2, 7-8. Available from http://www.ewtn.com/library/PATRISTC/PNI6-7.TXT; Internet; accessed 23 July 2013.
3 Cf. Ibid, 2.