I was teaching a Confirmation class one year, and in the back of the room sat a kid named Jake who came to class with a bad attitude every Sunday. Arms folded, scowl on his face – clearly, he did not want to be there. Finally, mid-way through the year, I pulled him aside and said, “Jake, what’s the deal? Don’t you want to be here?”
“No, I don’t,” he replied. “I’m an atheist.”
Oh great, a thirteen-year-old atheist. So I said, “Why are you an atheist?”
He explained, “I prayed for my grandpa to get better, and he died. There must not be a God.”
Sad to say, this is a common reaction. People pray for something, don’t get it, and then lose faith. How does prayer work, anyway? Jesus wrestles with this very issue in the Gospel. He seems to indicate that if we persevere in prayer, we will get what we ask for. But why doesn’t that always pan out?
Well, let’s look at two things today: first, the right and wrong way to pray. Second, we will consider the ways in which God does want to bless us.
Sadly, many people do not understand the right way to pray. They treat prayer as a divine vending machine. “I put in my three Hail Mary’s and…oh, what do I want today: healing, forgiveness, a new puppy, help on a test, a good diagnosis… yep, that’s it!” And we think that it’s an exchange – I “said my prayers” so God now has to do His job.
What a far cry from true prayer! True prayer is surrendering to God’s will. True prayer says, “Lord, I want X, but if You think it’s better for me to have Y, then Your will be done!” True prayer seeks friendship with God, not to treat God like a rich uncle who we treat with kindness just so that he pays for stuff.
When people have the incorrect view of prayer, seeing it as a way to force God to give them stuff, then they become like the woman in the Gospel. Notice how she uses a threat to get her way – the judge gives her the judgement because he is afraid she will come and strike him! Many people are like that – they think in their heart, “If You don’t give me what I want, Lord, then I will leave You, I will stop going to Mass, I will become an atheist.”
This, I think, is why Jesus makes the final lament in the Gospel – “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” When Jesus comes to search our hearts, will He find us with complete surrender to His will, trusting that whatever the Father gives us is for our sanctification? True faith says, “Jesus, Your Will be done.” True faith says, “I seek only You, Lord, not earthly treasures.” True faith says, “Jesus, I trust in You.” What a difference from those who just pray, “Lord give me this, give me that – or I will leave You!”
But from this parable, we can see that God is a good Father Who WILL bless us in His goodness. Consider: it was a widow who wanted her legitimate rights from the judge. In the ancient world, widows were a protected class – they were vulnerable, as anyone could come and seize their property. So the judge had an obligation to protect her by settling this court case in her favor.
Likewise, we have an enemy – Satan – who is bent on our destruction. And the Evil One seeks to steal the freedom, holiness, peace, joy, and salvation that are rightfully ours by our baptism – when we became children of God, we inherited these things! So when Jesus says, “God will secure the rights of His chosen ones who call out to Him night and day,” He is saying that through prayer, God will restore what is rightfully ours – peace, joy, holiness, freedom, and salvation. THIS is what He has promised to give us – not necessarily a new job, a better house, freedom from cancer, an A on the test, etc.
Our job, then, is to say, “Jesus – I trust that whatever You send me, it will lead to my greater holiness and salvation!” As St. Catherine of Siena said, “Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.”
In closing, I have always had a great admiration for St. Dominic Savio, the fourteen-year-old schoolboy who studied in St. John Bosco’s boarding school and achieved great holiness under his tutelage. One day, a new boy arrived at the school – this new boy was very sickly and pale, with a chronic cough and physical weakness (this was the 1800s in chilly Turin, Italy, after all). On the first day, St. Dominic struck up a conversation with this new boy, and the conversation turned to this boy’s chronic illness. Dominic asked, “Do you wish to be healed of this illness?” The boy replied, “I neither wish to get better or to remain sick – I just wish to do the will of God.” St. Dominic was so impressed with that answer that he became best friends with that boy.
This, too, should be our prayer – neither sickness nor health, neither riches nor poverty, neither comfort nor difficulty – but only the will of God, Who loves us and wants our holiness and salvation.