Good prayer is prayer that changes us. It doesn't necessarily feel good.

Do you remember picking up an old “party-line” phone and intruding into someone else’s conversation, because the telephone line was already in use? (Granted, you must be of a certain age for such a memory. Perhaps, one that you would just as soon not reveal.)

Imagine, for a moment, that you could hear prayers, spoken or silent, as they were being offered to God, that you were, so to speak, suddenly connected to God’s “party-line of prayer.”


If that were possible, it would no doubt also be overwhelming, listening to so many ardent desires. In Nathan Hill’s astute, comedy of manners, The Nix (2016), Faye Anderson is in a Chicago jail cell, the night before the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. She overhears a fragment of the prayers being offered to heaven that night. How she hears them isn’t at issue here. Nathan Hill, this new Dickens-of-an-author, pulls it off.

[j]ust then the big basement room is crashing with sound, the discordant and overlapping voices of people pleading for help, asking for protection, voices young and old, male and female, as if the room were suddenly a radio tower picking up every frequency on the dial all at once, and Faye can hear students asking for protection from the cops, and cops asking for protection from the students, and priests asking for peace, and presidential candidates asking for strength, and snipers hoping they won’t have to pull the trigger, and National Guardsman staring obliquely at their bayonets asking for courage, and people everywhere offering whatever they can in return for safety; promises they’ll start going to church more often, that they’ll be better people, that they’ll call their parents or children soon, they’ll write more letters, give to charity, be kind to strangers, stop doing whatever thing they are currently doing, quit smoking, quit drinking, be a better husband or wife, a whole symphony of kindnesses that might result if they are simply spared on this one ugly day.

No doubt such prayers were indeed offered. And faith tells us that they were heard! The Gospel is clear on that account: we are commanded to pray; we are told that God listens to our prayers.

Of course, all of us know, from our own lives, that not every prayer we offer receives the response we desire. Indeed, most don’t. So why does God ask us to offer so many unrequited prayers? Put another way, shouldn’t prayer be more successful?

As so many of the saints have pointed out, whatever prayers do, or don’t do, in regard to God’s will, they do transform us. All real relationships of some depth do, whether human or divine.

Scripture seems to suggest, by way of Moses, praying so long and so hard that Aaron and Hur must hold his arms aloft, or the incessant widow, driving a dishonest judge to distraction, that good prayer is not necessarily pain-free prayer. Because prayer is a real relationship with God, it’s no more immune to pain than any other relationship, even the good ones.

In a letter to her spiritual confidant, Father Jerónimo Gracián, no less an authority than Saint Teresa of Avila says the same. 

The fact is that in these interior things of the spirit what is more acceptable and certain is what leaves the best effects. I do not mean immediately with respect to many desires. Even though these are good, they do not at all times amount to all that our self-love paints them to be. What I mean by the best effects are those confirmed by works…Oh, this is real prayer, and not some delights for the sake of nothing more than our own satisfaction…

Saint Teresa goes on to insist that prayer isn’t about the contentment of our hungers; it’s about the conversion of our hearts.

I would not want any other prayer than that which makes the virtues grow in me. If it should be accompanied by great temptations, dryness, and trials leaving me with greater humility, I would consider it good prayer. That prayer is the best prayer that pleases God the most. It should not be thought that he who suffers isn’t praying, for he is offering this to God. And often he is praying more than the one who is breaking his head in solitude, thinking that, if he has squeezed out some tears, he is thereby praying.  

Good prayer is prayer than changes us. It doesn’t necessarily feel good. Simply by turning to prayer, the sorrowing and the troubled have offered themselves to God. That’s what counts. The prayer may seem to meet with no response. The one praying might emotionally experience God’s absence more than God’s presence. It doesn’t matter. We open a space for God when we pray. God enters our lives, in the yearning.

Don’t stop praying because your prayers appear to be unheard. God hears. And, someday, in heaven’s light, the longing alone, which we so often experience, will prove itself to have been quite effective.

Exodus 17: 8-13  2 Timothy 3:14-4:2  Luke 18: 1-8

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William Rydberg
2 years 3 months ago
"Unrequited Prayers"? You aren't taking long enough of a perspective... in Christ,
Bruce Snowden
2 years 3 months ago
Once in a homily on prayer the priest said prayer is answered in four ways . #1 “No!” which is an answer, #2 “Slow! What’s the hurry? God’s time is the right time.” #3 “Grow! Do you know what you are asking for?” #4 “Go! You have it. Now Proclaim it.” That makes some sense, but of course God is not limited to just FOUR ways. God answers prayer in any number of ways. We have to be responsive to what God is saying, but more importantly, HOW He says it. We need to ask for the Gift of Understanding, in effect activating that Gift we already have through Baptism and especially Confirmation. Also, just about everyone knows, I imagine, the greatest form of prayer is Prayer of Adoration, followed by Thanksgiving, Reparation and last of all Petition. To “interest” God Prayer must always follow that sequence. The Awesome Supreme Being who spins universes off His Fingertips is also “Our Father” or as St. Paul reminds, “Abba” roughly translated from Aramaic as “Daddy” and as our “Dad” is also interested in us asking for things, “Petition” preceded by “Thanksgiving” and also acknowledging the necessity to say “Sorry” in prayerful Reparation for all our screw-ups. In a nutshell painful prayer is like the Bamboo plant. Place the shoot/seed in the soil and you may as well forget about it. Years may go by with nothing apparently happening. Then suddenly, the Bamboo will shoot up quickly, towering to tree size in a short time. All the time that nothing seemed to be happening the bamboo was putting down deep into the earth an elaborate root-system, assuring the plant of an adequate water and nutrient supply. Once accomplished, like magic the plant takes off. Like the Bamboo plant prayer-life is something like that. A long time may elapse and nothing seems to be happening, but in reality our prayer is securing an elaborate root-system embedded into the Sacred Heart of Jesus, wrapped in the nutrients and water of Faith, Hope, Love, ready to become visible in God’s Own Way and in God’s Own Time. Jesus clues us in saying, “Pray always and do not lose heart!” That said we might as well get used to the reality that God never says "Yes" to anything not in His Will, a message Jesus gave long ago when He said, "Ask the Father for anything in My Name and He will give it to you." What is Jesus's Name? Among others "Truth." Therefore any favor requested from God that is not part of Truth will not be granted, As far as God is concerned if something isn't true, it doesn't even exist! Beautiful, and Difficult, but doable.

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