One night a few months ago, my 8-year-old son was very sick in bed. He lay there moaning and crying because of terrible pain in his ears. While my wife was on the phone attempting to get hold of a doctor, I did what I could to comfort him. We tried the usual things, but nothing worked. The choices seemed to be either to wait in an emergency room for hours late at night or try to wait it out at home. Neither option seemed like a good choice. We could not let him go on like that, so something told me to pray over him. I took the holy water we were given at a recent church event. It felt a little strange to me, as a new Catholic, but I proceeded to make the Sign of the Cross over my son with the holy water. Then I prayed for healing. I framed my prayer along the lines that we know that children hold a special place in God’s heart, and that it cannot be God’s will that my son would be in pain. Something seemed different about the prayer, but I could not immediately identify what it was. Since nothing dramatic took place after I finished the prayer, I returned to our room.
Half an hour or so later that night, I noticed my son had fallen into a deep sleep. I made a passing comment to my wife that I had prayed over him earlier, but it seemed not to have accomplished anything. She pointed out what should have been obvious: he was indeed sleeping, and this fact did resemble an answered prayer. For some reason, I had not connected the prayer to his falling asleep; they seemed to be two distinct events. The next morning, my wife took him to the doctor. He was found to have a serious ear infection, but my son insisted, to the doctor’s confusion, that it didn’t really hurt.
Prayer often seems like a routine. When something actually happens in response to our prayer, many of us find ourselves a bit incredulous as we search for other explanations. While that’s fine to a point, it may suggest why more of our prayers are not answered in precisely the ways we hoped. In thinking back over this experience, I realized that there was a different quality to my prayer. That difference seems to have been faith.
Who did not pray for snow as a youth? I remember sitting in my bed as a child and praying fervently for a heavy snowfall late one night. There was no doubt in my mind that the snow was going to come down in piles, and I remember falling asleep as I prayed with the blinds cracked open, so I could watch the falling snow. The next morning, everyone seemed very surprised at the record snowfalleveryone except me: I had faith.
Fast forward several decades, though, and it is harder for me to draw upon the child-like faith described in Mark 10:15. Why is it so difficult to imagine that God would extend his finger into our reality and perform a miracle on our behalf? The miracle, like ripples on a pond, is one of God’s ways of reminding us that we worship a living and real God, one who seeks to help us in our daily walk with him. How often do we forget to thank God for answered prayers?
I recently was made aware of an ancient homily for Holy Saturday, which appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here is a brief except from this beautiful prayer.
Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who ever slept ever since the world began.... He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with himHe who is both their God and the son of Eve.
The prayer reminds us that God is continually searching for us and desires the best for us. While God cares for and loves us individually, this does not mean that we as individuals should put ourselves before others, or neglect the larger Christian community. In fact, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Weight of Glory, we should not say that Christ died for us because we were so important. On the contrary, it is entirely through Christ’s sacrifice that we are endowed with our spiritual importance. Otherwise any potential value of the person would be eclipsed by sin. Of course, the best for us is not necessarily what we might imagine it to be. That is why our prayers may not always result in the kinds of answers for which we might have hoped. After all, God is not a genie, waiting to grant us three wishes. Some of us have even learned that we need to take care what we ask forespecially patience, for instance.
One should also not forget what the holy water represents. While obviously not required, it is a powerful sacramental, a physical sign of a particular sacrament as holy water reminds us of the spiritual rebirth of baptism. And in the case of my son, it seemed to play no small part.
When I think of holy water, a few observations come to mind. First, it represents the larger community of believers and the traditions of the church. If we pause and think about the cycle of a drop of water as it endlessly changes its form and location, we can catch a glimpse of this Christian communitypast, present and future. Perhaps this drop of water on our outstretched finger once dropped as rain on the head of Christ himself. Second, it creates a powerful means for the dispensation of God’s grace to man. As the Catholic writer J. R. R. Tolkien uses Galadriel’s vial, given to Frodo, as a symbol for holy water, we are all in need of a light in the darkness.
If your prayer life is like mine, there is a lot we both can improve. One preacher in particular is a model for praying without ceasing. Billy Graham, a friend of the Catholic Church, takes prayer very seriously. Some years ago I listened to a presentation by a close friend of the Rev. Graham. The speaker recalled asking Graham what it meant to pray without ceasing, as described in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. The presenter reportedly expressed doubt as to how this could be done. He pointed out to Graham the daily distractions of things such as phone calls and meetings. A surprised Graham disagreed. Praying without ceasing was precisely what he did. He gestured toward an open Bible in his office and explained that every time he passed the Bible, he paused a moment to read a passage, reflect and pray.
Billy Graham makes the following observations in his latest book, Journey: Nothing can replace a daily time spent alone with God in prayer. But we also can be in an attitude of prayer throughout the daysitting in a car or at our desks, working in the kitchen, even talking with someone on the phone. This also emphasizes the way prayer can ensure that our minds are calm and focused. A friend who serves nearby as a Carmelite brother recently drew my attention to this need for preparation before deep prayer in the contemplative writings of St. Teresa of ávila.
The Catholic tradition brims with examples of devout men and women of prayer. It is through the study of these lives lived for Christ that we begin to catch a glimpse of what it means to be created in the image of God. If we read works like G. K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis or St. Augustine’s Confessions, we realize that saints were just as human as we are today, but they learned to do more for God than their human capabilities alone could have accomplished. They achieved this through prayer, devotion and love.
Through prayer we move closer to childlike faith as we become the men and women God intends us to be, co-workers in the building of the kingdom. As we read in John 14:3, when we invoke the saving name of Christ in sincere prayer, we become instruments of peace in the hands of God, tools mysteriously necessary to fulfill and reveal God’s will.