As a priest I am frequently asked questions from people who are people of prayer, but suddenly find themselves in the deep end of the pool of life: illness, love lost, love found, death, financial ruin, crises of faith – and more. And they are looking at me as though I am the lifeguard of prayer ready to throw them a life ring… They are waiting for me to respond, to give clarity and certainty, reassurance, and hope… and many times, it the pastoral encounter which stirs up my own memories …
44 years ago …I was a junior in college, when the day’s mail brought something a bit different – a letter from home. It was not that a letter was unusual, but that the envelope was in my father’s handwriting. He had a very distinct, almost Spenserian penmanship, a flourish you no longer see in this day and age. Generally dad would add a line or a paragraph or two at the end of a letter, my mom having supplied most of the news and whatnot. But this letter was only from my father.
It was not good news. He wrote that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, that it was advanced, and he was starting chemotherapy. He was also pretty honest, writing that the survival rate was very low. He said that his one big hope and the focus of his prayer is that he would live long enough to see me graduate from the Naval Academy and then my older sister graduate from medical school. He just wanted a few more years. And he asked for my prayer for himself and mom.
A simple handwritten letter arriving on a winter’s day which revealed what a graced and sheltered life I had lead in the shallow end of prayer’s mysterious pool. Something as simple as that news, and I was thrown into the deep end where prayer and life intersect. I was 20 years old. What did I know about prayer? “Lord, let Marcia go to the prom with me” (She did). “Lord, how about a car for senior year in high school” (No luck on that one). Even I knew those were “prayer-ettes” surrounding the foibles of growing up. Now it was life-and-death. Could I pray: “God this is what I want. This is what I need.”
What if I persistently and boldly prayed for a miracle healing … and dad died anyway? Did that mean I lacked faith? Did that indicate that God was simply cruel, heartless – “You’re dad’s allotted time is up; deal with it.” Maybe I would pray the wrong way? Maybe I needed to bargain with God like Abraham? Or maybe I needed to make a deal, “OK, God if you cure my dad, then I will do this or that….” Maybe I needed to recruit an army of prayer warriors and we could assault the gates of heaven, overwhelming the will of God. … No! not an army…maybe I needed to find the right saint. Pancreatic cancer is pretty grim, right? A lost cause. Maybe I needed St. Jude on the team. Maybe… What if… Should I….
Those are the thoughts of someone suddenly thrown into the deep end of prayer.
And here is the life ring I can offer: be persistence and be bold in prayer.
Persistence has more to do with us than with God. As the first reading reminds us God heard the prayers of Abraham – in the dialogue of prayer Abraham gained clarity about the person and the will of God – coming to know God in His justice, mercy and then ultimately to know what God would do out of love to save even the smallest number of people. Persistence puts us in regular communication with God wherein God can influence our thoughts and feelings. Our persistence puts us in the best position for God to change our desires to ones more suited to the true need, one slightly out of view as we struggle to stay afloat. And Perhaps our desire fade away altogether and we find gratitude for unanswered prayers!
How boldly we should we pray to God? At the moment of our bold prayer, should we be a bit more humble: “Lord this I what I desire….. if it be your will.” What does that “if it be your will” addendum say about our prayer? Are we unsure? Of little faith? Tentative? Think we are not deserving? Are we hedging our bets? Are we making sure that if God does not answer our prayers the way we want we have an escape clause for God and for ourselves? Or is it that qualifying a prayer with “if it is your will” shows reverence and openness to God’s will.
What I do know is that Scripture, again and again, tells us that God is ready to give us what we need – all we have to do is ASK, SEEK, KNOCK and it shall be given. Yet, St. Paul prayed in such a manner when he asked God to remove the thorn from his side (2 Cor 12:7-9). He “pleaded with the Lord” three times to take it away. His prayer wasn’t provisional in any way. He begged God to remove the thorn, and persisted until God responded – and the Greek word for God’s response implies a firm, irrevocable reply. God said “no.” “My grace is sufficient for you,’” It seems grace and gratitude for that grace was what Paul needed. At this point, Paul ceased petitioning and found gratitude in God’s answer. And in that rejoicing he experienced freedom, discovering Prayer is a pathway walked in freedom. Freed from a lack of clarity about our own desires and God’s will – free to pray so that right-ordered desires are strengthened and other desires fade.
And none of this comes about in a day. A lifetime of bringing our prayers before God during the easy, the settled times – in the shallow end of life – all work toward building trust in the love and mercy of God. Then when the hard times fall upon us, the we are free from drowning in our doubts and second guessing, free to pray with persistence, boldness … With a great freedom to word our requests to God reverently but without provisions.
The life, the habit of prayer brings about a clarity, wisdom and the grace of God. It prepares us to ever more be open to receive God’s answer – and like St. Paul it may be “No.” But maybe the answer is our heart’s desire. And just maybe it is an answer we never envisioned. And just maybe in time it is all three.
My dad died four months later. It seemed at the time my prayers were completely unanswered. But persistence is, if anything – well….persistent! My dad’s passing did not mean prayer about his passing ceased. In time, by practice, I learned persistence. In time I learned to be bold. And in those continuing prayers I found a new depth of gratitude for my father, a new source of inner strength, and how to swim in the deep end of life. I learned to pray.
…with memory’s reverie passed, one can return to the pastoral moment, and simply say what can be said. “Be persistent. Be bold. Hang on.”
Those are but some of the life rings of prayer for the deep end of life.