Prayer is Not Magic

Sometime in the middle of August, I ran into Becca, one of my former students. She was about to start her freshman year in college as a pre-med major. As we caught up on our recent histories, she told me that her boss Charlie was in the hospital in a coma. He was in there for something routine. At some point, he was given something (accidentally?) in which he had a violent reaction. It caused renal failure, and he slipped into a coma. The prognosis was bleak.

Later that day, I found a quiet place and prayed for Charlie. I prayed everyday for God to heal Charlie. Let it his recovery be a miracle and an inspiration for others to find a way to get closer to God. I also prayed for his family to find the strength, courage, and endurance to make it through this trying time. Let it be in Your plan that Charlie recovered.

About a week later, I called Becca to see how Charlie was doing. I was not surprised to find out that his condition was improving a little. I had expected this kind of news; after all, I had been praying for his recovery. He was half-conscience. His eyes were not really open, but he would respond to request like, “Can you wiggle your feet?” His kidneys were still not functioning. Progress was still very guarded, but I knew things would work out for the best. I continued to pray for Charlie’s health.

I didn’t hear from Becca for a week or two. Finally, I saw her at our high school’s football game on Sept. 12th. I eagerly asked about Charlie. I was devastated to hear that he had died on Labor Day. My heart sank.

Why did Charlie not live? Why were my prayers not answered?

This news hit me pretty hard. It felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath me. This was the first real time since I discovered my faith nearly two years ago that a prayer had not been answered. (At least not for its face value.) Sure, I had other prayers that were not directly answered in the way I was expecting them, but at least they were still answered. This prayer for Charlie was not. I thought I was doing the best I could do as a Christian in offering up prayers of hope for someone else. I prayed everyday. I tried to generate as much “soul energy” as possible. But Charlie still died. I was disappointed. I did not understand.

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Thomas Merton in New Seeds for Contemplation wrote:

The theology of the devil is really not theology but magic. “Faith” in this theology is not really acceptance of a God Who reveals Himself as mercy. It is a psychological, subjective “force” which applies a kind of violence to reality in order to change it according to one’s own whims. Faith is a kind of supereffective wishing: a mastery that comes from a special, mysteriously dynamic will power that is generated by “profound convictions.” By virtue of this wonderful energy one can exert a persuasive force even on God Himself and bend His will to one’s own will. By this astounding new dynamic soul force of faith…you can turn God into a means to your own ends. …

We hear faith does everything. So we close our eyes and strain a bit, to generate some “soul force.” We believe. We believe.

Nothing happens.

We close our eyes again, and generate some more soul force. The devil likes us to generate soul force. He helps us to generate plenty of it. We are just gushing with soul force.

But nothing happens.

So we go on with this until we become disgusted with the whole business. We get tired of “generating soul force.” We get tired of this “faith” that does not do anything to change reality. …Its magic is not effective after all. …

Having become disgusted with faith, and therefore with God, we are now ready for the Totalitarian Mass Movement that will pick us up on the rebound and make us happy [with material things].

Damn! I had slipped into a little of this type of thinking. Not to the point were I was “disgusted with faith.” No, my faith was not from the devil. I knew my faith was something independent of my feelings. I never wavered in my belief of God. I still trusted God. I had to trust in God. I had doubts, major doubts.

I did not feel like praying, but I did. Not as much as I normally did during the course of a day, but I did continue to pray. I also continued to read scripture although my attitude was not conducive to much reflection. I also went to Church on Saturday evening. Something softly whispered in my mind’s ear that maybe I should not go up for communion, but my heart said go. I did, praying for Jesus to heal me through the whole liturgy.

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On the following Monday, while my students were taking an Algebra 2 test, I graded their notebooks. Slipped in the clear-plastic cover of one student’s notebook was a hand-written note about her favorite quote from her dad, “It’s how you get up after you have been knocked down that counts!”

On a church marquee, I saw another quote, “Smooth seas never made a skillful sailor.”

I opened up my copy of Thomas Merton’s book mentioned above to the beginning of a chapter with these words, “To hope is to risk frustration. Therefore, make up your mind to risk frustration.”

Coincidence?

— — —

I had forgotten what prayer was truly about—prayer is a conversation between you and God. It is like a dialogue between two people. Dialogue always involves two people talking and two people listening. I had been doing much of the talking, and not enough listening.

I had prayed for a miracle. I wanted that miracle so bad. But that miracle was my will, not God’s will. I wanted God to follow my plan for Charlie, not His. This is not what prayer is about. It is never about my will; it is always about God’s will.

If I really believed the few words at the end of my prayer, “Let it be in Your plan,” maybe the news of Charlie’s death would not have hit me so hard. I would not have felt that “the rug had been pulled out from under me.” It was and still is hard for me to let go of my pretension that I am the one in control. Our world makes us feel like we are the ones in control, but we are not. We have the choice, but not the control.

A person never knows how they affect other people. I didn’t even know this person named Charlie. I prayed and hoped for the best for him. I don’t know why Charlie did not live. I do not understand. Perhaps it is not for me to understand. I do not know God’s plan. I have to trust in God that His plan for Charlie was carried out. I do not know how Charlie’s death affected his family and friends. They are in my prayers. I know that I learned a lesson. Maybe Becca, a future doctor, has learned something about death too. May God have mercy on Charlie.

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As Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “…not my will but yours be done.”