Not long ago I was working with a young couple, preparing for marriage. We were going over Prepare and Enrich, an instrument that identifies a couple’s strengths as well as, what are euphemistically entitled, their “areas of growth.” Because of time constraints, we were taking on more topics in a single meeting than advisable. It was tiring work, for everyone involved. One touchy or troublesome topic after another was raised. Pointing out areas of strength didn’t lessen the strain and embarrassment of facing tough areas of concern.
I was particularly impressed with this couple’s care of the other. They had both faced more than their share of challenges in their homes of origin, but each showed a great solicitude for the other as we rummaged through attics of emotional detritus. When I announced the end of the long session, the bride-to-be commented on how quickly the bridegroom and I jumped up. We were both ready “to get out of there.”
Thirty minutes later, I had shed what I call “the Bat Costume” and was happily relaxing in front of a sit-com. Halfway through the show, the phone rang. Garden Valley, the local nursing home, was on the phone. A woman wasn’t expected to live through the night. Her husband had asked for a priest.
For some reason, I always respond to such a request by apologizing for the five minutes that it will take me to don the Bat Costume, as though people believe that I sleep in it, at the wheel of the car. I then asked, three times, for the room number, because the facility is labyrinthine and I didn’t recognize the name. The nurse sweetly calmed my jitters, “Father Klein. We know you. We’ll find you when you get here.”
It was a woman I had seen two days earlier. Her husband, who now was sitting at her side, jumped up as I entered the room. He thanked me profusely for coming. A rosary lay on the bed table. I was surprised to find the woman responsive. She fully participated in Viaticum, the rites for the dying. Her poor husband couldn’t contain himself as I prayed. He paced the room, woefully wringing a large wet towel in his hands, ready to wipe his wife’s brow.
We visited a while when I was finished. He and his wife were only in their sixties, though she had been battling cancer for a year. “She’s a strong farm girl, Father. And she’s been a wonderful wife to me. She has a beautiful home. Father, I don’t know what I’m saying. I didn’t even know to call the priest. I struggle with the dementia.”
As I left the room, the nurse found me. “I saw the rosary,” she said, “and I asked if they wanted me to call the priest.”
That’s when I realized that the nurse wasn’t Catholic. In seeing the rosary on the table, she had heard a silent prayer, ever so humble yet effective.
Sirach tells us that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal” (35:21). How is it that the prayers of someone like the tax collector—who “would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner’”—find hearing while those of the haughty do not? (Lk 18:13)
God does not parcel out love. Indeed, as Pure Act, God never works in degrees. “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites” (Sir 35:15). Then why are the prayers of the lowly more effective?
The answer lays within us, not God. What do the lowly possess? A deep awareness of their need! Like the young couple I had been preparing that evening, the lowly are aware of their necessity; they don’t bury it beneath pride and pretense. Perhaps their prayers find a hearing, because they begin in an entirely different place. They pray for what is truly needed. Their petitions aren’t born of illusion and arrogance.
The second couple I saw that evening couldn’t even voice their need. Yet God heard their prayer. Their sorrow and their faithfulness to the Virgin bespoke what they could not, and a non-Catholic nurse carried their cry to God. The Lord hears the prayer of the lowly, because their prayers begin in a place much nearer the heart of God.
Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18 Luke 18: 9-14