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