We have needs to present, but let's let God be God.
When my little sister was a preteen, she had an odd way of praying: she would take the dELiA*s catalog, mark everything she wanted (noting the correct size and color), and then place it on her nightstand, saying, “Lord, please let all these clothes be in my closet in the morning. Amen.”
You will be shocked to hear that God answered that prayer with a resounding no (and, if you’ll indulge the anthropomorphism, a hearty chuckle).
I laugh, too, thinking about it. What a ridiculous way to pray!
But my wannabe-cool tween sister had more in common with most Christians than we might like to believe. She had a laundry list of needs that she presented to God for him to execute, like a butler. We’re inclined to do the same.
The most obvious problem with this approach to God is that it denies him any semblance of sovereignty; he exists to respond to our demands, not to love and be loved. He’s not Lord of anything, he’s merely a personal assistant, and one who’s frequently “incompetent.” This kind of prayer life (excusable in my 11-year-old sister) has nothing in common with the personal relationship with Jesus the last several popes have spoken of so frequently.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with praying boldly, as long as we append “thy will be done” to the end of each prayer, acknowledging that we’re seeking God’s will, not just his favors. But when we get in the habit of outlining just exactly how God ought to solve a problem, we can feel even more lost when we come up against a situation that we don’t know how to solve.
Many of us, I think, are feeling this way right now when looking at our Church. We know we need to pray for healing for the survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and bishops. And surely we ought to want justice for their assailants, but we’re bound also to seek mercy. We need purification in our Church, but what does that look like? What reforms? What new policies? What punishments? What resignations?
It’s too much. And since we don’t know what to pray for, we find ourselves adrift, angry and betrayed and hopeless with no sense of how to fix it.
That’s okay. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by this latest wave of scandals. It’s okay to be heartbroken and disgusted. It’s okay not to know what to pray for, or how to pray in this situation.
In fact, maybe it’s better that way. We only have one account of the Blessed Mother offering a prayer of petition: at the Wedding at Cana, when they had run out of wine. She didn’t hand Jesus a post-it with a break down of how many bottles she wanted of Merlot and how many of Chardonnay. She didn’t tell him to create wine ex nihilo or divert a passing wine merchant. She just presented their need: “They have no wine.” And she trusted him to fill it. Even when he hesitated, she kept holding that need out before him, knowing that he would respond, one way or the other.
This model of prayer has been incredibly important in my life, especially since I tend to want to plan the future and control every detail. But Mary has invited me to stop trying to be God. Instead, I bring him my need and then sit before him, hurting or eager or confused but his.
This, I think, is the kind of prayer we need right now. We need action, too, of course. There are letters to be written and meetings to be held. Please God there will be change. But as we fast and pray, we don’t need to have a plan of action in place to propose to the God of the Universe. It’s enough just to hold out our wounded hearts, the pain of the victims, the dysfunction in the Church.
So many people have been abused, Jesus. They’re hurting. Heal them.
God, so many people are walking away from you.
Some of these men may not even be repentant. Justice, Lord! And mercy.
Oh, Jesus, we are a mess.
We have no wine.
If your pain is too deep for words, you’re in good company. There are times when the only prayer I can manage is to call on the name of Jesus, in desperation and anguish and accusation. And love, somehow. Because he’s hurting far more than I am.
With Mary as our model, we can pray even if we don’t know what to ask for. Because ultimately, the purpose of prayer isn’t to fill our closets or our pocketbooks or our prisons or our pews, it’s to bring us close to him.