When you pray, someone is always listening
A Reflection for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
A painter is working in a choir loft when a little old Italian lady enters the church. She marches directly to its front and kneels before a statue of the Virgin.
The painter decides to have a little fun. “Hello,” he says loudly, down into the nave.
There is no response from the little lady; she continues fingering her beads, reciting, “Ave, o Maria, piena di grazia, il Signore è con te.” Perhaps she is a bit hard of hearing? The painter speaks up, “Hello. I’m listening. How may I help?”
There is still no response from the signora. Only “Tu sei benedetta fra le donne e benedetto è il frutto del tuo seno, Gesù.” Maybe she’s slow of wit and hard of hearing. The painter bellows, “Hello, this is your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. How may I help you?”
Without turning around, the old lady yelps, “Would-a you be-a quiet. I’m-a talking-a to your momma!”
We live most of our lives unintentionally. In other words, we do most things with incomplete attention, much less intention. This is also true of prayer. We pray but not as though we truly believe that someone is listening.
The exception might be prayers of petition, but even there one might ask where our attention is truly focused: upon the God whom we believe we address, or upon the worthiness of our intention? “How could God say ‘no’ to this prayer, which I am offering for good old Aunt Edna?”
Prayer is not rattling. It is entering into a moment of intentional relationship.
Some non-believers have lampooned the sheer audacity of prayer, especially those of petition, saying, “So the intelligence that created the universe is supposed to receive your petition, realize that he did not get it right the first time and adjust his plan for the cosmos in response to your suggestion?”
Put like that, prayer does not seem to make much sense, yet our Lord told us to pray, to bring our needs to him. We must simply admit that our reasoning cannot comprehend the claim that the Gospel makes upon us.
The next time that you recite a prayer—the Our Father or the Hail Mary are good examples—remind yourself that someone is listening. Admittedly, our ability to be attentive is limited, but our prayers would be immeasurably improved if we truly believed, like that little signora, that we were indeed talking to someone.
This is important for all of us, but especially for priests, praying in the Eucharist and for all those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours. It is not a comforting quote from the Bard, but we need to wrestle with what King Claudius says in “Hamlet,”
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go (3.3.97-98).
The Virgin Mary once said to me in prayer, “If I, who I am, am deigning to hear this prayer, might you try to believe that? To speak as though you knew that I was listening?”
The next time that you recite a prayer—the Our Father or the Hail Mary are good examples—remind yourself that someone is listening.
It makes a difference. Prayer is not rattling. It is entering into a moment of intentional relationship. Of course, you will only rattle yourself if you try to force that insight to remain in focus. Just pray that it occasionally does dawn upon you.
Often enough, someone praying in church is interrupted by another without hesitation. Does that mean that we presume nothing is really going on, that nothing is being interrupted? Why do we believe—at least we act as though this is what we believe—that, if we cannot see a relationship, none exists? That nothing is really happening when we pray?
“Would-a you be-a quiet. I’m-a talking-a to your momma!” If only we believed that. If only we tried, occasionally, to pray as though we did.