Continuing the Carmelite Order's contribution to well-being in the current coronavirus pandemic, Fr. Kevin Alban, Prior Provincial of the British Province of Carmelites, offers the second reflection in a series on prayer...
Fr. Kevin Alban, O.Carm., preaching at Aylesford Priory in 2019.
What do we ask God for – and why?
In times of crisis it seems quite normal for many people to turn to God, even if they do not usually think much about God or pray to him. There seems to be something in human nature that spurs us on to seek help from some “higher power” or force. Some people would call this power “God”, and in the three religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, believers are encouraged - even ordered - to bring their needs to God.
When we pray and ask God for something, what are we doing, and what do we believe? Do we believe that God can simply suspend the laws of nature at our request? Do we believe that God has somehow caused our crisis and we need to appease him to make it go away? How does God cope with my asking him one thing, and your asking him the complete opposite?
In chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel we read:
Continue to ask, and God will give to you. Continue to search, and you will find. Continue to knock, and the door will open for you. Yes, whoever continues to ask will receive. Whoever continues to look will find. And whoever continues to knock will have the door opened for them.
There is no doubt about the clarity or the meaning of Jesus’ words. Yet our prayer does not always receive an answer. Was Jesus lying? Was he winding us up in some way? There are, of course, all sorts of ways of interpreting that quote from the Bible, and all sorts of explanations that try to fit the round peg of our experience into the square hole of the gospel promise.
To understand our contradictory experiences, it is necessary to go more deeply into the question of who we think God is. At a fundamental level, we do recognize God as the one on whom we somehow depend. God is the one whom we can turn to and with whom we can have a personal relationship. In this vision there is no place for God as a magician who can cast a spell or wave a wand – the world isn’t like that. We cannot manipulate or strike a bargain with God.
The gospel story of the raising of Lazarus is helpful here.
There was a man named Lazarus who was sick. He lived in the town of Bethany, where Mary and her sister Martha lived. (Mary is the same woman who put perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) Mary’s brother was Lazarus, the man who was now sick. So Mary and Martha sent someone to tell Jesus, “Lord, your dear friend Lazarus is sick.”
When Jesus heard this he said, “The end of this sickness will not be death. No, this sickness is for the glory of God. This has happened to bring glory to the Son of God.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days and then said to his followers, “We should go back to Judea.”
In John’s account (in chapter 11 of the gospel), Jesus delays his journey for two days even though it is clear that Martha and Mary have begged him to come to Bethany. It is equally clear that Jesus has a close, personal friendship with Lazarus and his two sisters. Inexplicably, as it seems to Martha and Mary, he does not come to their aid. The key here, of course, is the way in which Jesus sees these events. He wants us to understand them as an occasion for trust and faith, rather than for consolation. This is not a question of being callous or insensitive, but of embracing a bigger picture. God cannot be manipulated by us and indeed has his own plan and purposes.
We do not need to tell God what the world is going through, nor what is happening in our lives - he knows already! Yet there is a great value in "telling the story", to get it off our chest. When we then reflect on how we feel after telling God our woes, it may be that something has changed within us. Maybe a new perspective has emerged? Maybe there is greater clarity? Maybe we have even found a solution we weren't expecting. Those are all "answers" to prayer, but maybe not the ones we were expecting.
Prayer can reveal something significant to ourselves and help us understand ourselves better. Jesus had this experience shortly before his arrest and execution. In Matthew’s gospel (chapter 26) we read:
Then Jesus went with his followers to a place called Gethsemane. He said to them, “Sit here while I go there and pray.” … Then Jesus went on a little farther away from them. He fell to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, don’t make me drink from this cup. But do what you want, not what I want.”
Jesus is naturally frightened of what awaits him, which will culminate in a terrible execution by crucifixion. He prays to his father that he could avoid this fate (cup). Then he realises that what he must suffer is an expression of his obedience to the father. (Probably the gospel writer has compressed his account of Jesus’ longer experience into a short phrase.) In a sense, Jesus appreciates that his death is part of a bigger plan. The answer to his prayer is not that he should avoid death, but that he now understands why he must die.
Prayer can reveal something of our relationship with God. The real benefit of asking things from God is the deepening of our trust and dependency on him. The real answer to prayer is an understanding of the “bigger picture”. Prayer can’t be used to “change God’s mind”, but it might just change us.
Text: Fr. Kevin Alban, O.Carm.
Photography: Dr. Johan Bergström-Allen, T.O.C.; Pexels from Pixabay