“Sometimes God answers our prayers for more time in unexpected ways.”
That is what my parish priest said to me when I told him how being caught in a reduction in force layoff left me at loose ends, uncertain of how to fill my days or use my time. I was about to protest that I had not been praying for more time when I realized that after almost every weekend and holiday in the preceding 4 or 5 years I had started the drive to work by saying or thinking “I need more time.”
So I thanked him and went off to ponder both unexpected answers to prayer, and prayers we might not be aware we are offering.
Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnipotent
In confirmation class we were introduced to these special qualities of God: omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. My 11-year-old reaction to these terms was initially rather blasé—of course God sees everything, exists everywhere, and is all powerful. He’s God.
Omnipotence is something we expect from God, but as I left my ‘tweens for my teens, I began to find that the concepts of omnipresence and omniscience were a little discomfiting. Fortunately most of us do not experiences these qualities directly often, and not for long periods of time.
One of the variations of the Act of Contrition I use asserts an intent “to avoid whatever leads me to sin.” Forgetting/ignoring/suppressing any sense of God’s continuing and pervasive presence would seem to be step one in subverting that intent.
Our sense of the presence of God is not something that crowds in on us from the very air itself. Instead, it is attenuated and even blocked by our fallen world and our sinful natures. It is relatively easy for us to ignore God’s presence, to forget it and minimize it. We have been practicing ”independence” from an early age as our own fallen nature asserts itself.
Just Because We Don’t Perceive It . . .
The world is full of things we cannot perceive directly, abut they are no less real for that. Every year in cold and flu season we perceive indirectly the reality of viruses.
God’s presence and knowledge of us—his omnipresence and omniscience—are quite real and unceasing though, no matter how much we have hardened ourselves against being aware of Him. But unless we are spiritually quite mature, we are not ordinarily very aware of God’s qualities of omniscience and omnipresence. He is there, however, in every moment of time and every place there is. Among other things this raises the following question:
Just When Are We Praying?
One of the challenges of rearing children in the Faith is teaching them about the efficacy of prayer while avoiding giving them the idea that prayers are like wishes or in any way magical. We can end up giving them a lot of what seem to be mixed messages. Even the best parenting may leave some bits of confusion that children have to sort out on their own as they mature.
For me, at least one of those confusions turns out to have been understanding when I was praying. I have read for years about learning to pray continuously and wanted to emulate this. I’ve also read about mystics who imagined their entire body to be a great tongue uttering prayers. But my sense of prayer was that it took place when I decided to pray.
I didn’t always pray in church, nor always on my knees, and not nearly as often aloud as silently. But I did still have a sense of intent. For instance, most days I would get into the car to drive to work and say “Oh Lord, please help me because You know I can’t help myself.” I would then attempt some praise and gratitude, followed by my intentions, my petitions, and thanksgivings. (I rarely attempt adoration while driving.)
Then the day came when my priest told me “Sometimes God answers our prayers for more time in unexpected ways.”
God Knows Our Prayers, Even More Than We Do
So, yes, I had been saying, out loud, usually as I was getting into the car, but before I started my prayers. “I just need more time.” Thinking back on it, sometimes I probably said “Lord, I really need more time.”
I most often said this after a weekend or holiday, but sometimes during the week. But I never thought of it as a prayer.
For one thing, when I visualized what I meant, it was usually something fanciful like winning the lottery or having an unknown but wealthy relative die and leave me a fortune. This would give me leisure time to use exactly as I pleased.
I did had a vague sense that someday I would retire, but like a lot of American males I thought about that as something in the vague and distant future. In the meantime I was living providently. I was saving money and investing for retirement. But if you had pressed me, I’d have probably admitted that I was in no way ready to quit my work.
So I never thought of this as a prayer. What I imagined myself to be asking for was not, to me, something worthy of a prayer.
I thought I was venting a foolish desire into the air, getting it out so it would not interfere with the day’s duties and real work. I wasn’t joking, but I didn’t think of it as a real petition or possibility.
But God is always present and knows all things, including the secrets of our hearts. What I was not willing to take seriously as a prayer He heard for what it was. Here is a consequence of God’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. He acted according to his will and NOT my imagination.
An Odd Feeling
Viewed from this perspective—that God is paying attention to what I pray and think and feel and want and vent—it is a bit of an uncomfortable feeling. It’s one thing to read about god’s presence in the Catechism; it’s another to think “Oh Lord, You are listening and you did something!” I found myself sympathizing with Peter in Luke 5:8. I was ready to call out “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
But if God is omniscient and omnipresent, then nothing we say is unheard. So what we may not think of as a prayer may be more than we think.
Our Father Knows What We Need before We ask Him
Jesus himself taught us about the realities of prayer in a way that gives us considerable hope in the sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew.
When Jesus teaches us to pray to God as Our Father, He is inviting us into an intimacy that should boggle our minds. At the end of his ministry he calls his Apostles brothers, and he tells us that God receives our petitions as a father does a son. God will not give us a stone when we asked for bread, or a snake when we asked for a fish.
God does not say ‘yes’ to all our prayers because He has better things in mind for us than what we have in mind for ourselves. But Jesus is even more specific than this. He tells us that our Father in Heaven will not give us a venomous threat or a tooth-breaking lump when we ask for nourishment. He may not provide chateaubriand and vintage Bordeaux, but He will give us the bread and water of eternal life, and the saving chalice of his Blood.
It is interesting to note that while Jesus told us in these chapters in Matthew not to chatter away at God with extra words in our prayers, in Luke 18:1-8 He also talks about persistence in prayer. He promises that God will answer prayers for justice more quickly than human judges. But persistence and diligence may still be called for.
We can understand these apparent paradoxes by thinking about our own spiritual maturity. Persistent prayer for what we imagine to be bread but is actually a stone may bring us eventually to the maturity to understand that we are asking for a stone, rather than bread. At the very least we should come to a point of wondering if what we are asking for is really good for us.
And as my own experience showed me, sometimes we are reluctant to ask God for something because we fear it is not nourishing for us. But our desires come forth anyhow. And God, being all good, may eventually give us an unexpected ‘yes.’ And that His yes, being unexpected, may take a form we did not imagine or anticipate.
Trust and Diligence
Trust and diligence are important elements in our personal prayers. We must trust that God really hears us. He hears what we intend as well as what we do not feel worthy to ask. And he wants to give us nourishing answers to our prayers.
So we trust and persevere continuing in our prayer for ourselves, for others, for the Church, and for the world. And we wait for answers in God’s time.
We should think about what we say with intensity and desire, even when we are not formally at prayer. And we should do our best—in asking for God’s help—to make those things blessings and not curses, and expressions of love and holy desire rather than selfishness or wrath.
And we should ask that God will lead us to pray for the things He desires to give us, even if we do not recognize His desire to give or believe ourselves worthy of His gifts. He does love us. He does want to give us all of his goodness and mercy if we will only ask for it and accept it when it comes.
O Father, lead us to pray for the things you will delight in giving us and the world.