My wife got a call late one evening from her brother in New Jersey, who said my mother-in-law had been taken to the hospital after suffering a heart attack. He promised to call again after he had been to the hospital, which was a half-hour's drive from his house. My wife and I lay in bed, unable to sleep. She asked if I would pray for her mother. At first I did not respond. "She's in good hands," I said finally. "I know she's in good hands," my wife replied. "Will you pray for her?" There was another long pause. "I will pray for all of us," I said. Later, we learned my mother-in-law had died instantly of a massive heart attack. Prayers for her recovery would have been unavailing.
I am supposed to be the religious one in the family, but I no longer believe much in the efficacy of prayer -- at least not the kind of praying that most of us engage in most of the time. Anne Lamott suggests there are essentially two types of prayer. The first goes something like this: "Help me, help me, help me;" and the second: "Thank you, thank you, thank you." It is taken as a sign of faith that we pray for what we want and a sign of gratitude when we remember where it came from. But I suspect the first is often more a sign of fear than of faith, and the second merely gratitude that our fears have been relieved.
"We do not know how to pray as we ought," St. Paul said. How can we? Rarely do we understand ourselves well enough to know what is truly in our own best interest, much less in the best interest of others. Looking back, we can all recollect some apparent misfortune that proved to be a blessing in disguise. And we have all been lured down the wrong path by a string of seeming successes that merely set the stage for a still greater failure. How would such situations have been improved had God answered our prayers according to our desire of the moment?
In his second inaugural address, delivered near the end of America's bloodiest conflict, Abraham Lincoln noted that both sides in the Civil War "read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." Lincoln, who was surely one of the Great Souls of human history, observed that the prayers of both sides could not be answered and that neither fully had been, concluding, "The Almighty has His own purposes."
If the Almighty has his own purposes -- as indeed he must if there is any purpose to life at all -- then what do we hope to accomplish by prayer? Do we believe that God is uninformed about some circumstance we find ourselves in? To this Jesus would respond, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him." If he knows what we need before we ask, what is gained by our importuning? Is it faith or merely presumption to imagine that God can be made to serve our purposes through fervent prayer? Would we not do better to try to understand his purposes before seeking to bend him to our own? In that case, we should begin by listening. The question for us is not, does God answer prayer, but do we?
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies