“How’s your prayer life?”
This question was posed to me four separate times within the space of three weeks. Each came from a very different source, religious and non-religious, Catholic and non-Catholic. When something like that happens, I assume that God is trying to get my attention. Coincidence is often providence in disguise. In this case, I think He wants me to take a hard look at myself and give an honest answer to that question.
Here ’tis: My prayer life sucks right now.
Behold, Exhibit A: The world’s biggest hypocrite. I know how our friends and family have been on prayer overdrive for us, lo these many months. Many of those prayers, in fact, I have explicitly requested. And yet. In my most brutally honest moments, I recognize that I have a serious problem with prayer these days.
I have, at other periods in my life, nourished a fantastically rich prayer life. I would pray daily rosaries or the Liturgy of the Hours. The kids and I would chant The Angelus at noon. I would begin each morning steeping myself in God’s word (while drowning myself in a gallon of coffee). My heart was open, listening, responsive to the whispering thread of God throughout my day.
Today, even when I manage to complete any of these rituals, it feels hollow and dry. I know the old adage, “Fake it till you make it,” is probably best applied in situations like these. And I am not praying to evoke a warm feeling, but to maintain contact with the Creator of the universe. So, I keep cracking open the Bible. Putting on a rosary podcast. Sitting in the Adoration chapel checking the clock every ten minutes until my hour is up. But it’s halfhearted and mechanical. Faked.
This is because all of my prayers, lately, are subjugated beneath the heading of The One Prayer to Rule Them All, the most important prayer I know right now: God, please heal my son.
Do I believe this is possible? Yes. Do I believe this will happen? No. Not exactly, anyway. Not in the way these things often happened in the Bible, that Jesus will reach out and that Oscar will wake up one day with a fully healed brain and body.
And they brought the boy to him; and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.”
If you can, help my son. I believe; help my unbelief.
The crux of the matter is that “if,” and my unbelief. No matter how hard I struggle, I cannot get rid of the if. I cannot convince my scientifically trained mind to cast off the unbelief. In Catholic terms, we phrase it differently: Heal my son, if it be Thy will. What might happen, were I able to pray without that if? Couching a prayer behind that smacks of false piety. Of course! God can never do anything other than His will, because His will IS. He is all in all. Nothing exists outside His will.
So adding that qualification to my prayer amounts to nothing more than a way of shielding my own heart from disappointment. It is a limitation on love. It is the hard outer edge of my faith. As a friend of mine, whose own daughter is very sick, put it to me: “I guess I’m expecting a medical cure that’s more realistic. Do you think that keeps it from happening miraculously?” My response: “I go to Adoration as a way of hedging my bets. Here I am, God, asking again, just in case what the church teaches is actually true.”
This entire year has been a test of faith. It actually began even before Oscar was born. Even before I was pregnant with him. I have struggled with doubt for a long, long time. God’s response, in throwing a special needs child into that morass of questioning and uncertainty, fear and anxiety, has been like the long-dreaded shipwreck finally happening after a long, long storm. Hard stop. Pulling up short. What in God’s name is really going on here?
Or as Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Ultimately, this is why community matters, and why the Church as the body of Christ matters. I am a member of the Catholic church not because it makes me feel good or close to God. It doesn’t always “feed me,” to borrow some general Christian-speak. I don’t jump ship during the storm because I know that amounts to casting myself, alone, into the sea, where I will surely be lost. I belong, and I believe, and I continue going through the motions of prayer and worship, because it is True.
The community prays when I cannot. The Truth stands when I don’t see it for myself. The sky is always blue, even when it is obscured by dark storm clouds. Even when one is legally blind, as I feel myself to be in matters of faith these days.