Let me begin this post by saying one thing: prayer is difficult, and it’s difficult for so many reasons. For one, it is seems beyond challenging amidst the craziness of our busy lives to set aside time to pray. Even when we do make the time, our minds are constantly plagued by seemingly never-ending to-do lists, worries, and other distractions that prevent us from really focusing our minds on God. In my opinion, I think the reason why prayer has dwindled in our society is because we fail to see the efficacy of it – that is, we don’t think it works. This is definitely prevalent in our secular society, where belief in God seems to have fallen by the wayside. However, I think it’s also true for some Catholics, even those who are faithfully practicing.
Think about it: if we really believed that prayer worked, why aren’t we making the time for it? If we truly believed Jesus was listening and wanted to speak directly to us, wouldn’t we want to talk to Him every day? That is EXACTLY what we get in prayer – a conversation with Jesus, our best friend.
In order to maintain and strengthen any relationship, we must keep in contact with one another frequently. How would your spouse feel if you decided to only talk to him or her only once a week? I’m pretty sure there would be some problems within your relationship; at the very least, it wouldn’t be as strong as it should be. That’s why we need to make sure we carve out some time each and every day to pray.
What about when we are in the midst of a period of our lives when we really need God to answer a specific prayer, but nothing seems to happen? This is perhaps the biggest reason our secular society has given up on God – He does not cater to our culture’s primary desire for instant gratification. However, this situation can also be very difficult for those of us who do believe, and understandably so. If I am a faith-filled person whose intentions are good, how come God doesn’t seem to hear me? If I serve Him well, how come when I need Him to help me with this urgent plea, He doesn’t seem to be responding? These are both valid questions, but Jesus has already given us the answer. In order to understand this further, we need to take a look at the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11, verses 5-13:
Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Here, Jesus is providing us with several key points about prayer. First, Jesus tells us a story of a man who petitions his friend for a loaf of bread late into the night so he could feed a weary traveler that has come to his house. Notice that the friend initially refuses; however, as a result of the “shameless audacity” of the petitioner, the request is eventually granted. Here, Jesus is expressly telling us to be steadfast in prayer. God appreciates our “shameless audacity,” because it shows Him just how much we trust in Him and His ability to rule over us. This is evident when Jesus proclaims: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.“
In the last few verses here, Jesus explains that nothing evil can come from the Father. This is important to remember when we are looking for an answer to our prayer – God will only give us the best possible answer to our prayer, because it is the answer that will lead us closest to Him, and thus will provide for us the best chance for eternal salvation in His Kingdom. This answer may be quite different than the one you had hoped for, even if the one you had hoped for was something morally good. Think of this as a multiple choice question on a test, where the instruction is to choose the “most correct” answer. While another answer may be well and good, it is not the most complete way to answer the question. The “most correct” answer, in this case, is always the one that leads us closer to Christ, and we can only know this if God makes it known to us.
This is where uniting our will to His becomes an important component to any prayer petition. If we close our hearts to the Holy Spirit, and only see prayer as a way to manipulate God for our own ends, then prayer can never be effective. If we only want to see results that coincide with our own will for our lives, then we will often be disappointed in prayer, because the truth is, we aren’t really praying. Prayer is a conversation with God, not an utterance of demands. The only way to really have a conversation with someone else is to truly listen to what they have to say. This is the beauty of prayer: we are endowed with the privilege to listen to, and truly experience, Christ. A great way to understand the beauty of prayer in practice is by examining the lives of two saints who exemplified it, albeit in different ways: St. Monica and St. Ignatius of Loyola.
St. Monica is an excellent example of someone who was steadfast in prayer. Her son, Augustine, was a young man who subscribed to an ideology called Neoplatonism instead of sharing his mother’s Catholic faith. As a result, he lived recklessly, cavorting with many different women, and even fathered a child out of wedlock. Despite what seemed to be constant setbacks, St. Monica placed her trust completely in God’s Divine Grace, and continued to pray for the conversion of her wayward son. It was through Monica’s persistence in prayer over many years that the power of the Holy Spirit changed the heart of Augustine. After his powerful conversion, he eventually became a Bishop, and wrote several works which are now deemed classics of Western literature, perhaps the most famous of which are City of God and Confessions. St. Augustine is now known as one of the great Church Fathers, and this was all made possible because he had a saint of a mother that refused to give up on him – no matter how many sleepless nights she had to spend praying for his conversion.
Though St. Monica’s tireless prayer resulted in the answer she had hoped for, this is not always the case. St. Monica’s prayer for Augustine’s conversion was answered because it was God’s Will for his life. God will always answer your prayers, however sometimes it is in a way that you might not expect, as is evidenced by the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
St. Ignatius of Loyola
St. Ignatius longed to be a decorated soldier in the Spanish Army. However, a cannonball shattered his leg during battle, and he was bedridden for a significant period of time. At first, he prayed for a full recovery, so he could return to the battlefield and continue his quest to be a famous soldier. He often wandered into thoughts of earthly glory and romances with ladies of high rank. In fact, it was Ignatius’ first request that books about lofty conquests and passionate romances be given to him to read during his convalescence. There were no such books in the castle, however – only books about Christ and the lives of the saints. After a long period of intense study and contemplation, Ignatius began to understand that his original prayers pertained to desires that were not of God.
God would eventually answer Ignatius’ prayer for a full recovery, but not at the end of becoming a decorated soldier. Instead, Ignatius would go on to become a holy Priest and founder of the Jesuit order, and his work The Spiritual Exercises would go on to bring many souls closer to Christ throughout the ages. As we can see, God answered Ignatius’ prayer, but not in the way Ignatius had initially hoped; God answered Ignatius’ prayer in accordance to His Will, and because Ignatius had opened his heart to the Holy Spirit, he was freely able to accept that.
In the end, we must persevere in prayer, because God values the audacity in our persistence. Perhaps He has not answered your prayer in the way you had hoped, because there is another avenue He wishes you to pursue that will lead you closer to Him (St. Ignatius). He may also answer your prayer at some time in the future, because He knows this period of tribulation will bring you closer to Him (St. Monica). Ultimately, if you open your heart to the Holy Spirit, you will eventually come to realize that there is no such thing as a prayer gone unanswered.