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Prayer: Why We Don’t Get What We Want

When I was a priest in Bolivia, living in a village on the shore of Lake Titicaca, a man came to the door saying he was part of a crew of a boat that was crossing the lake from Peru and that one of his crew mates was deathly ill and in much pain. The man asked if I would go get him and get him care.

So I drove our jeep to an isolated spot on the lake shore where the sick man waited in a heavy, wooden, 24-foot sailboat – full of what I took to be contraband goods. I took him to the little clinic in our parish where one of the nuns who was a nurse examined him.

She decided he had an intestinal blockage, possibly a knotted intestine, and that he wouldn’t survive unless we got him to a hospital quickly. That was a two-and-a-half hour drive, over painful bumpy roads, to La Paz.

That morning, the readings at Mass included the gospel in which Jesus promises, “Ask and you shall receive.” While the man lay on the examining table, writhing in pain, I prayed fervently that he wouldn’t die. I asked, as Jesus instructed, and I expected to receive. But it didn’t happen. We took him to the hospital in La Paz where he died.

Wanted Him to Live

This bothered me greatly, and to some extent, still does. I wasn’t praying for something for myself, after all. I wanted this fellow whom I didn’t know, who was probably in his late 30s and probably had a family, to live. He was poor, and probably a law-breaking “contrabandista,” but how could God refuse?

Many people have had a similar experience, fervently praying for something – such as the recovery from illness of a friend or family member – and been disappointed.

Obviously, no one knows the mind of God, but if he is “all-good,” how can he allow such things to happen, and how can he ignore our prayers after Jesus’ promise?

Scripture scholars use the term “hyperbole” to describe the exaggerated language in the Bible, and that we also use today. We say to ourselves, “If he says that again, I’ll kill him.” Or, like the woman at the well in the gospel story, “He told me everything I’ve ever done.” 

Was He Serious?

So, does that mean Jesus wasn’t serious, or that there are conditions on Jesus’ promise that all we have to do is ask and we’ll receive? Of course he was serious but, yes, there are conditions. And though no explanation may completely satisfy, the one that comes closest, perhaps, is the analogy of child and parent.

A parent probably wouldn’t agree to a child’s request to eat a gallon of ice cream. Asking for the life of a person isn’t the same, of course, but the idea is that the parent knows better than the child what’s good for the child, and we have to have confidence in God’s goodness, believing that even about death, God knows best.

So in my opinion, Jesus was saying that if it’s good for us, God will grant it, and that’s been my experience.

The other important thing about prayer is that it’s not just a matter of asking for things. We should also say, or think, prayers of contrition, thanksgiving and adoration. If we’re not prone to adoration, by the way, we won’t have confidence in God’s goodness because we don’t appreciate who God is and who we are.

Finding a Quiet Place

Another thing about prayer: Although we can whisper a quick prayer anywhere, if we want our prayer to be “high quality,” we’ll find a quiet place to pray, like Jesus did when he went to the desert.

I recently received an informational email from Abbott Benedict Neenan of Conception Abbey in Missouri in which he talks about monastic life partly being a matter of “finding the right place to pray.”

Answering his own question about why Benedictine monks take a vow of stability, he wrote: “The answer is very simple – so the monk can seek God.

“The vow of stability provides a foundation in the monk’s search for God; a place where the monk can open himself to God and his Divine Light; a place where the monk is transformed and renewed in God’s grace.”

It may not be a monastery, but we, too, need a quiet, out-of-the-way place where we can be prayerful and thoughtful.

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