Recently a friend who suffered a family tragedy some years ago shared with me the comment made to him by a priest. On the night of this tragic loss, the priest-friend came to the home and listened as my friend vented about how God had not answered his prayers. The priest said very directly “God doesn’t answer prayers.”
While this initially was a somewhat shocking thought, upon reflection there is some comfort in it. Many people pray for serious matters. Healing a cancer. Curing a depression. Bringing a loved home safe from war. Many of those prayers end with a sad outcome. I have heard too many of those people judge themselves for not praying hard enough or correctly enough or, worse yet, for not deserving the desired outcome. I find no desire to believe in a God who answers prayers based on some secret algorithm or, worse yet, randomly.
So if God doesn’t answer prayers, what if anything does God do? I take comfort from the idea articulated by writers such as Harold Kushner and Anne Lamott that God fills our pain, that God is present amidst our suffering, listening and consoling. I take comfort in the thought that, on occasion, God may intervene directly in human affairs, as I believe He/She did when two men came together and created Alcoholics Anonymous. And I certainly sense God’s presence in a great piece of music or a great work of art or even in the laughter of my grandchildren.
God doesn’t run a candy store. Of that I am sure. God can be present to us in meaningful ways. Of that I am sure. I just don’t know about prayers of petition.
As I wrote three years ago, there are other forms of meaningful prayer. Prayers of gratitude (although that gets tricky if I believe I am grateful for an answered prayer). There are prayers of mystical wonder where my heart soars with joy when I sense a connection. And there are powerful prayers of silence where I strive to listen and to hear God within.
I look forward to the day when it will all make sense. I will continue with petitions for loved ones as well as for the many suffering ones I see daily. But perhaps that priest’s words are a challenge. As a therapist said to me years ago, “Perhaps your religion needs to grow up a bit.” Perhaps my idea of prayer needs to grow up as well
Reflection: How does prayer fit into your spiritual world?