I was told that my First Holy Communion day would be the happiest day of my life. I found it difficult to believe that it could be happier than Christmas day or bonfire night, or a day out at the fun fair, but I was prepared to keep an open mind. Then someone told me that God would grant any prayer, any request that you made of him if it was made while the sacred host was actually in your mouth and on your tongue — so long as you didn’t touch it with your teeth. Naturally, that made all the difference, all the difference in the world.
The Happiest Day of my Life
I began to prepare myself for the big day by visiting the local sports shop to gaze at the bicycle of my dreams that God was going to give me on the happiest day of my life. When I told Miss Holt, our teacher what I was going to ask for she told me that God might not think it would be good for me, and he did try to give priority to little boys who were not selfish and asked for things for others. So I decided to pray for my brother Peter instead. He had suffered a polio attack when he was six and had to wear an iron caliper and a built-up boot ever since.
When the day came, the moment I got back to my place I closed my eyes, clasped my hands together and asked God to make Peter’s leg better. I was sure he would answer my prayer, especially as I had given up the bicycle of my dreams. I remember my disappointment when I came out of Mass and saw my brother still hobbling about with his stick in his hand. I was so sure I would have been given something special on my First Communion day, and instead I nearly lost my faith. It was the first time I had to face up to the problem of unanswered prayer, but it was not the last.
The Monkey’s Paw
We all begin by trying to manipulate God to get what we want out of him, and then get upset when we can’t, or blame Him for not caring for us as he should, or even doubting that He is there at all. Do you remember that awful horror story about the monkey’s paw? A man was told that if he held the paw in his hand he would be able to make three wishes and they would all be granted to him. His first wish was that he would be given a fortune. The next day his wife was horribly mangled to death in a road accident. The money he wished for came from the insurance company with whom he had insured her life. When he wished her alive again it was to see her raised from her grave exactly as she was immediately after the accident. She was frighteningly disfigured and in terrible pain so he used his third wish to wish her back in her grave again. It’s a cautionary tale for all who think that getting what you want will make you happy. Who was it said that? “If you want to make a person miserable then give them everything they ask for.”
God the Plumber
The trouble is we too often treat God as we treat the plumber. We hardly ever think about Him until something goes wrong and then we expect him to drop everything and come rushing to our aid, and we become angry and annoyed when He doesn’t. But when we pray to him for something for ourselves or for others, his grace always reaches out to answer our prayer through us. Now if we are full of selfishness and sinfulness he simply cannot get in even if he wants to, because it is our egotism that barricades Him out. Deep down in our semi-conscious, we know this, and that is why we ask people whom we know are closer to God than we are to pray for us. That is why we turn to the saints or innocent children or perhaps to a parishioner renowned for their sanctity.
God’s Power works best in Human Weakness
There is something else too that prevents God from doing what we want of him. He is full of selflessness and wants the best for everyone. We are full of selfishness and don’t even know what is good for anyone, and that includes ourselves. Take my brother as a case in point. He was mad on sports; he loved rugby and cricket and athletics even though for the most part he had to be satisfied with watching others do what he would love to do himself. At first, it made him frustrated and angry, but when he learned to accept his weakness it was his very weakness that enabled him to come close to God. It enabled him to discover the great secret of the spiritual life. A central scriptural theme that runs through the old and new testament is, in the words of St. Paul that, “God’s power finds full scope in human weakness.” So if a person is totally oblivious of their weakness, they will not turn to the only One who can help them. It was precisely because of his weakness that Peter turned to God in prayer. No matter what he was doing or how busy he was in the day, he always gave quality space and time to God every evening. He did not spend that time trying to get what he wanted out of God, but in helping God to get what He wanted out of him. What God wanted for Peter was to enable him to become his true self by receiving and responding to the love that he experienced each day in prayer. The change in Peter was there for everyone to see.
Hundreds of People Came to his Funeral
When my brother died at the age of twenty-two he had come as close to God as anyone I had ever known. Hundreds of people came to his funeral and scores of them said not just what a good man he was, but how good he had been to them personally. Many people said they had been so inspired by his simple goodness that he changed the whole course of their lives. If I had my way, he might have played for his county at cricket, he might even have played for his country at rugby or received a gold medal at the Olympics, but he would not have been a tenth of the man he was when he died.
The reason why it would be disastrous if we always receive what we want when we pray is that selfishness is so deeply rooted in us all that we don’t really know what we do want, or rather what we need — but God does. Deep down beyond all the petty things we pray for and think are so important, the one thing we want above everything else is ‘everything.’ God is everything we want and we will only be happy when we have Him. I’m not saying that we should not pray for little things, even big things, for ourselves and for others because on some occasions our requests will be answered — God knows why!
Thank God for God
But one thing is for sure. Prayer will always be answered because it is always a sign that we know how weak we are, how much in need we are, and how deep down behind all the selfishness that drives us all, we dearly want the only One who can give us everything that we really do want. We start our prayer journey by trying to use God, trying to exploit him, and as we keep on trying he gradually teaches us that in the end, it is He who wants to exploit us. He will if we persevere, even if we persevere in praying for the wrong things. But he wants to exploit us for ourselves so that we can become our true selves from the ruins that we are at the beginning of our journey, by filling us to overflowing with the fullness of His life and love. It is this that we have always longed for from the very beginning, but have been too blind to see it. Thank God for God!
He has also just produced Prayer made Simple, published by The Catholic Truth Society.