"Were I God, I wouldn't listen to people like me..."
If I were God, I wouldn’t listen to people like me. That’s what I thought when, late in high school, I was new to serious Christianity. I couldn’t see the point of praying. The reason for becoming a Christian was to hand your life over to someone who knew infinitely more about what was good for you than you did. As far as I could see, God would do what he was going to do anyway, and I’m glad he was.
Older Christians would patiently explain prayer to me by saying that God tells us to pray and would try to encourage me with stories of God answering prayers in amazing ways. They’d then explain that God always answered prayer but sometimes the answer was no. That made perfect sense, of course, but they really seemed to be saying that God would do what he was going to do anyway.
The answer seemed to me a kind of cheating. You tell people to do something and tell them that it works and when they ask for evidence that it works, tell them they can’t necessarily see the effect. It’s an unfalsifiable argument. Actually, it still seems to me a kind of cheating. And to talk to God because you want favors from him seemed to me just ignoble.
When I was in junior high school, we were assigned the book Of Human Bondage by the now almost forgotten writer Somerset Maugham. I think teachers thought of it as one of those “coming of age” novels they believed teenagers wanted to read, and one that didn’t have all the rude words parents objected to in Catcher in the Rye. Looking back, I wonder if our teachers didn’t also notice that Holden Caulfield does not think much of teachers. Books about bad parents they were happy to teach, but not books about bad teachers.
The main character, Philip, is an orphan with a clubfoot living with his uncle, a pastor. Its most famous scene tells of Philip praying and praying and praying to be healed of his clubfoot the day before he leaves for boarding school. His uncle has explained that, as the Bible says, those with faith can move mountains.
As Philip lay in bed each night saying his prayers, “His heart leaped as he saw himself running, running, faster than any of the other boys. At the end of the Easter term there were the sports, and he would be able to go in for the races; he rather fancied himself over the hurdles. It would be splendid to be like everyone else, not to be stared at curiously.”
He “prayed with all the power of his soul. No doubts assailed him. He was confident in the word of God. And the night before he was to go back to school he went up to bed tremulous with excitement.”
And then comes the famous passage. (Mary Ann is his uncle’s servant.) When Philip wakes up the next morning, “His heart was filled with joy and gratitude. His first instinct was to put down his hand and feel the foot which was whole now, but to do this seemed to doubt the goodness of God. He knew that his foot was well. But at last he made up his mind, and with the toes of his right foot he just touched his left. Then he passed his hand over it.”
“He limped downstairs just as Mary Ann was going into the dining-room for prayers, and then he sat down to breakfast.”
My teacher seemed to feel, and many of the other students clearly thought, and I—as a fairly secular-minded child—was fairly sure, that this was the way things are. Prayer got you nowhere, whether because there was no God to hear you or because God wasn’t listening.
This is the way prayer looks to many people who weren’t raised praying. I kept at it as a new Christian, sort of, off and on, when I remembered, but I didn’t see the point. Praying was an act of obedience but my heart wasn’t in it. I remember reading an article on a spiritual writer that told of her sitting in her yard with an abbess she knew as they talked for hours about prayer, and being completely baffled as to what they could have talked about for five minutes, never mind hours.
My heart never got into it until I realized that prayer is an act of friendship. That made sense to me in a way the usual arguments didn’t. You talk with our Lord and—as my circle of friends expanded when I entered the Church—with the Blessed Mother and the saints because you always talk with your friends. You don’t do it primarily to get things from them but because you share the details of your life with those close to you. If they can help, great, but that’s not why you talk to them. They’re friends you speak to with deference, of course, but having friends so much greater than you is one of the pleasures of friendship.
When I first seriously began to think about entering the Church, one of her great attractions was the Tabernacle. There I could sit with my friend and talk. It was where, to adapt a phrase of T. S. Eliot’s, prayer became friendly.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.