Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Doesn't God Answer My Prayers?

A great number of wise men is the safety of the world
    ----- Wisdom 6:1-25
Yesterday I wrote about the “coincidence” of our desire to pray for our country and my recent reading of two books on prayers.  I guess I could have included the “coincidence” that I am also reading and reviewing (on my Catechism Study blog) the section of the catechism entitled: Christian Prayer.  And then this morning, “coincidently” I read the words from the Book of Wisdom in the Bible, underlining the ones I quoted above, which focus on knowing God. 
Did I mention previously that I don’t believe in coincidences??
Long ago, when I was a young teenager, my cousin Nick and I used to walk down the alley to the other side of the block to grandpa’s house.  Two or three nights a week we would go over to his house and play pinochle with him; he greatly enjoyed our company, and we his.  I don’t recall why we started going there on a regular basis, perhaps our parents suggested it, or maybe it was our own initiative --- but we knew that grandparents were to be respected, and we treated grandpa that way.  And we enjoyed those nights playing cards with grandpa, and we always had laughs, ---- and grandpa always won.
Despite our youth, Nick and I were fairly intelligent chaps, and we wondered how grandpa did it.  Yes, age and experience should have made him a better card player, but not that much better.  I recall asking him one night: “Grandpa, how come you always win so much?”  I don’t recall his answer, but my memory of his answer is kind of like the one to a question I had earlier in my youth about how Santa ever got up and down the chimney --- it was a wink of his eye, a twitch of his nose, and poof! --- magic.  Grandpa never told us his secret to winning, but after much thinking and watching him, we eventually figured it out, but it wasn’t easy.
Our talks with grandpa those evenings were almost always about things grandpa was interested in.  If he seemed melancholy or distracted some nights, all we had to do was ask about the war or the old country or his job as a policeman, and he would launch into long and interesting tales of the events of his life --- most often the same ones over and over again, but we listened.  He told us about things he was interested in, and what was important to him.  Of course Nick and I had many interests also.  Besides school and church, we both enjoyed sports, for instance, and I fondly recall how during the summers we played endless hours of tennis.  Nick’s challenging game eventually helped me make the tennis team in college, but of course grandpa wasn’t really interested in those things.  If we really wanted to engage him in conversation, we’d open topics he was interested in.
Praying to God is engaging in conversation with Him, and some of the lessons I learned from my parents about conversations with adults apply equally to my conversations with God (or any conversation, for that matter).  First, and most important, I need to respect the adult I am speaking with, and God deserves even more respect than any human being.  Respectful conversation with an adult, I was taught, means: listen and don’t interrupt; humbly accept criticism; assume that with his age he has more wisdom than you --- even if you don’t understand it; and never showing disrespect to him by shouting or cursing or whining if you don’t get your way.  And if all these things prove too difficult for you, (if you can’t do anything else) then grit your teeth -- with your mouth closed so he can’t see your frustration (and you can shut up) – and smile.  This was the respect I learned for my elders, which applies even more to my conversations with God.  My parents taught me all these things, but my time with grandpa taught me even more.
Grandpa loved me and was concerned about me, but concerns which seemed big to me seemed small to him.  If I only wanted to talk about me, the conversation quickly turned into a monologue.  If I wanted a real conversation, one in which I might learn something, I had to be open to grandpa’s interests.   I recall Nick and I discussing sometimes the topics grandpa spoke to us about, questioning our understanding of his concerns, and how often we went home and asked our parents or went to the library to do some reading, to learn more about these things which so concerned grandpa.  (Boy, I wish we had the internet then!)  And when we knew more about things which interested grandpa, we found understood him more, and some of his concerns eventually became our concerns.  We grew in wisdom, by wanting to understand as he understood.  This is a great lesson in the ways of God also.  If we know more about Him (and His Church), we will understand more why He is concerned about some things, and we will find ourselves also being concerned.  And with this common ground, our conversations will not only grow more interesting, they will grow more loving.  And we will suddenly become aware, as we grow in wisdom, that some of our concerns were really the concerns of a youth, minor things, in the bigger picture of His wisdom. 
But of course, in our dealings with God, we will never fully understand all of His ways (not on this earth at any rate).  Like grandpa’s winning at pinochle, we will find it very hard to understand how His ways always seem to be the best ways.  Even if it sometimes looks like He is losing, we find that in the long run He always wins, and it will be a marvel to us --- like poof!, magic.  But if we persist in conversation, in prayer, with Him, even these unknowable ways of God will be perceived by us.  We will know how and why He acts, even if only to accept that He acts in love.  And that knowledge, that faith, will be enough.
Abram asked God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for ten good men, and God said He would.  As the words of Wisdom above note: “A great number of wise men is the safety of the world.”   
I’ve been led recently to read about and write about and think about prayers for our country, and for the world.  As I’ve learned in the catechism, my concerns go beyond prayers of petition --- prayers for myself, but are prayers of intercession --- for someone else, and this is good.  “Intercession is a prayer of petition which leads us to pray as Jesus did.  He is the one intercessor with the Father on behalf of all men.” – 2634   If you know nothing about how to pray, the catechism encourages you to start the conversation with God by merely calling His name:  Jesus.  If nothing else, a calm, quiet saying of His name is enough to start the beginnings of the conversation, the changing of your heart, the beginning of knowing Him.
“Faith is filial adherence to God beyond what we feel and understand.” – 2609   (Faith is believing without understanding.)  “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will.”  (Mk 11:24)  “The prayer of faith consists not only in saying ‘Lord, Lord,’ but in disposing the heart to do the will of the Father.  Jesus calls his disciples to bring into their prayer this concern for cooperating with the divine plan.”  2609  
Bringing into your prayer a concern for “cooperating with the divine plan”?  But how do you do this?  Ah, lessons from my grandpa again:  if you want to have him interested in a conversation, talk about things of interest to him.  It’s like wanting to be loved, you must love first.  Stop focusing only on yourself, and your constant prayers of petition for what YOU want.  What is the divine plan?  You need to learn more about Jesus to begin to understand this wonderful thing he was concerned with, this thing which made a God humble Himself to become a lowly man, this thing which He, a God, was willing to die for.  Read books by the saints, by wise Christian men, Scripture, and try to understand what God is interested in, His divine plan.  Try to grow wise in His ways, to have faith, so that you can have fruitful conversations with Him.  So you can discern how He does answer your prayers, but perhaps not in ways you might wish, for He is wiser than you.  Learn to pray, that you might grow wise, and so you can cooperate with His divine plan, and find peace and happiness with it.  And why is all this important?
A great number of wise men is the safety of the world.  Everything you hold dear depends on it.     

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reviews: Praying In The Cellar and A School of Prayer

Having written lately about concerns over our country and the coming election, it’s probably a coincidence that in my morning meditations lately I have been reading two books about prayer.  The first, Praying in the Cellar by Anthony Delisi, was recommended by my friend, Barb.  The second, A School of Prayer by Pope Benedict XVI was recommended by my local Catholic book store. 
Anthony Delisi is the founder of the Lay Cistercian movement, aimed at bringing monastic spirituality into the lives of lay people around the world.  Based in a monastery near Atlanta, he has spent many of his 80 years in Africa, and in this book he reflects back on his life and the lessons he has learned.  He uses his early-morning prayer time to imagine himself in the cellar of his childhood home, to enter a dark quiet place where he can pray, “the place where I as steward of the goods of my person, can be at the sensitive center of my life.”

“Once we enter into the cellar and expose our fears to the Father, strange things may indeed happen.  Slowly we become aware of the nearness of the God who loves us.”  Strange things indeed happened as I read this book.  It was an unusual book, compared to most of my readings.  It really didn’t educate me in any new insights of my faith, nor seem to bring me closer to God, but it did resonate with me nonetheless.  I found Delisi’s simple reflections on his childhood events, and even the cellar itself and the tomatoes and bananas stored there, to be somehow quieting.  It was a peaceful read, although that doesn’t describe it adequately.  Does it teach you how to pray?  Perhaps, but I think it is more just a reading of someone who DOES know how to pray, to see and accept God as part of his life.  It gives me a sense of peace, knowing men such as Delisi exist.   If you wish to find some deep religious insights, this book may bore you --- in a way it bored me!  But I still liked it.
“Once again I find myself in the cellar among the jars, locking myself in.  This door reminds me of another door in Rome, Italy, along the street not far from the Abbey of San Anselmo.  Tourists peep through the keyhole to get a glimpse of the dome of Saint Peter’s in the distance.  If I look through the keyhole of the door in this dark, cool room, am I able, with faith, to see the gates of heaven and the heavenly Father peeping down at me in this room?  Does this make sense?”  A thought leading to a memory leading to a reflection, those are the words Fr. Delisi writes.  I found looking at his praying, his journaling of his prayers, to give me peace in my morning meditations.  And after reading a section I could put the book down and float into my own memories and reflections --- not a bad thing.
“Papa bought the cheapest olive oil from the third pressing.  Today, olive oil is advertised as ‘virgin’ or ‘extra virgin.’  It could even be widowed, but as long as it is olive oil, it is good enough for me.”  Fr. Delisi is a simple man, as are his prayers:  I pray, we pray, Our Father who art in heaven … and in this cellar with the tomato sauce, preserves, and wine.  You are with us, and we fear no evil.  To You be praise and honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.
  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
In the spring of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI began offering a catechesis on prayer at his regular Wednesday talks in St. Peter’s Square.  This book, A School of Prayer, is the text of 31 of those talks.  After reading Fr. Delisi’s book on prayers, I picked this one off my bookshelf and began reading.  Thus far I’ve only read a few of the talks our Pope has given, but I can already see the same wisdom and simplicity I found in so many of Benedict’s previous books and talks.  Compared to the depths of JPII, Benedict speaks more simply.  He makes simple statements, but they give you pause, as you realize the depth of what they mean.  And he explains simply, as if talking to a little child.  The depths of philosophy and theology?  Yes, but presented so clearly that anyone can understand.
In his talks, Pope Benedict walks through the prayers found in the Bible, God talking to his children, starting with those in the Old Testament (Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Elijah), and then moving on to the Psalms, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and finally he gives us his thoughts on differing types of prayers.  “Dear friends, in these examples of prayer of different epochs and civilizations emerge the human being’s awareness of his creaturely condition and his dependence on Another superior to him who is the source of all good.  The human being prays because he cannot fail to wonder about the meaning of his life, which remains obscure and discomforting if it is not put in relation to the mystery of God and his plan for the world.”
“Man knows that by himself he cannot respond to his own fundamental need to understand.  However much he is deluded and still deludes himself that he is self-sufficient, he experiences his own insufficiency.  Man bears within him a thirst for the infinite, a quest for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and truth which impel him towards the Absolute.  And man knows, in a certain way, that he can turn to God; he knows he can pray to him.  St. Thomas Aquinas defines prayer as ‘an expression of man’s desire for God.’  … In prayer, man considers himself and his situation before God and experiences being a creature in need of help, incapable of obtaining on his own the fulfillment of his life and his hope.”
At the end of each talk, the pope speaks directly to his listeners.  This is the concluding instruction after his first talk:  “Dear brothers and sisters, let us learn to pause longer before God, who revealed himself in Jesus Christ, let us learn to recognize in silence, in our hearts, his voice that calls us and leads us back to the depths of our existence, to the source of life, to the source of salvation, to enable us to go beyond the limitations of our life and to open ourselves to God’s dimension, to the relationship with him, which is Infinite Love.” 
I’ve written in recent days about the need to pray for our country, to place our petitions at the feet of God.  This is a good thing, and he DOES hear our prayers.  These two books go into deeper dimensions of prayer, beyond what we want, and into a conversation with God.  What does HE want?  What is he quietly giving to us, without our even asking?  By his words and examples, what does he expect of us, his children?  These two books open prayer into greater dimensions, beyond the concerns for ourselves.  Fr. Delisi demonstrates how we can go into a quiet place, and God will help us see him in our lives.  Benedict goes deeper, and demonstrates how God acted in the lives of the saints, and how he touched the lives of his people; how he loved them.  Both books, with their short chapters, are excellent for growing in prayer, in opening ourselves up for conversations with God.  In this Year of Faith in the Catholic Church, these books are practical examples of how we can grow in our faith. 
Whether you think your life is blessed, or just one trial after another, there is one thing I can guarantee you: that there will be trials ahead.  These books demonstrate how you can effectively deal with those trials --- not alone.
             - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It took many years for me to learn how to pray.  In the beginning, there were many hours of darkness, and the feeling of being alone --- kind of like those prayers in the cellar.  But I persisted.  And there were also many times of consolations, including those times when I finally understood the prayers answered in Scripture, even as Pope Benedict described.  These were all part of my experiences in growing in prayer. 
In the beginning, it almost seemed a chore to pray --- I even bought the watch with its thoroughly irritating buzzer to remind me when to pray (even as I now set my phone alarm at 12 and 6, times to remind me to re-learn the Angelus prayer).  Yes, learning to pray did take some persistence.  And I thank God for those small consolations along the way, those little “aha! I see You there!” moments as described in Scripture.  And the even much softer said, “aha, I see … no, I feel … I, uh, …, … I know You are there” moments.  Even now, I praise Him for those consolations, those prayers answered, and those moments when I just KNEW He was with me, especially in my sorrows.
One of the greatest blessings given me, over the years, was His leading me to a church which had regular Eucharistic adoration and, through others, encouraging me to spend time alone with Him there.  It was there, in those quiet hours that we grew to be friends.  Now, like lovers holding hands watching a starlit night, we need not speak.  Like friends reading poetry aloud by the light of the fireplace, we understand.  And like children being tucked into bed in a warm home, we know we love one another.  Prayer, especially in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, is all those things to me.  But even when I am not there, I see Him in the eyes of those he puts in my path, in the words they say, and in the love and consolations I offer them, His.
But, where do His blessings to me come from?  I know me most intimately, and I am certainly not one deserving of any love or recognition or trust, especially from a God.  And yet sometimes He uses me, for reasons I know not why, and even in ways I know not how.  He uses me because I, in confidence told Him it’s okay to do so.  In our quiet moments, I told Him that what I have is His.  I told Him we are friends, and that I love Him.  I told Him I trust in Him.
That’s what friends do.  That is what prayer makes us.  That’s what gives me so much peace --- knowing I am not alone.  He’s always there when I call, and most especially, even when I do not. 
You will seek me,
and when you seek with your whole heart,
you will find me.
--- You will pray to me,
and I will listen to you.
-- Jer 29:13

Monday, October 29, 2012

If You Do Not Forgive ...

Continuing my Year of Faith commitment to read a chapter of the Bible each day, I read these words this morning:
Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.  When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents, and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.  So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.  But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat he said, “Pay what you owe.”  So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”  He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay his debt.  When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.  Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you besought me, and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”  And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.  So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. 
                        --- Mt 18:21-35

Conversation was not short at the coffee shop this morning after mass.  The businessmen and political leaders of our community had much to discuss (and the fate of the Detroit Tigers was not even mentioned!!).  And everyone had opinions, moi included. 
We talked about the storm on the East Coast.  “New York shut down all its transit systems,” I reported reading in the WSJ paper.  “Most people there don’t own vehicles; they won’t be able to go out for anything.”  Another guy said, “That’s the point.  They want everyone to stay home; you can’t just tell them, you have to make them.”  And from there the discussion rambled to its potential impact on voting and the election.  It’s being called a hundred-year’s storm, someone else noted.  (But I’ve already written here about “The Sky Is Falling,” so I won’t go any further on this topic.)
We noted that Spain is talking about breaking up, with various segments of the country wanting to be away from the rest, with its 25% unemployment and huge governmental debts.  “We can govern ourselves better,” they noted.  I think this topic was the transition thought that led someone else to mention that a relative was heading down to Haiti for two weeks, to work at a mission to help the people there.  I commented “That’s where real poverty can be seen.  Perhaps we should send a group of the unemployed from our area down there for two weeks, to see what real unemployment and poverty is, so they might appreciate their blessings.  I’d even donate for the plane fare to get them there.”  (Of course, I always have such wise answers to problems --- at least in my own mind I do.)
But that led to conversations about the under-employed here in our country.  One commented how many 40-ish people he saw working in McDonalds or WalMart’s: “They can’t live on $10/hour, especially since they are only being allowed 30 hours per week, to avoid being called full-time employees and the company having to pay benefits.  That’s only about $1000/month.”  Of course, I contributed my numbers background and noted that with 2,000 work hours a year, $10/hour is $20,000/year.  For many, many years I made less than that, I commented, and even purchased my new 4-bedroom house for $38,000.  “Well, houses aren’t $38,000 anymore, and the people aren’t working 40 hours per week,” was the retort.  “Okay,” I conceded, “maybe they’re earning only $15,000/year, but they aren’t paying taxes.”  From there we went into what has changed over the last 40 years in our country, besides salaries and the cost of houses.  One of the things noted was the disintegration of the family or even the closeness of family.  “All the kids all move away, and then if they or the parents need help, they’re on the other side of the country.”  And even the physical closeness isn’t as close as before, someone commented: “How many people are you really friends with in your church?  If you needed help, could you turn to them?” 
And then I saw the article in the national paper which mentioned our small town:  Ford had sold off a huge manufacturing plant, and the buyer was transferring the work somewhere else.  And for the first time that morning, there was a silence from the people at the table.  Up to that point, we had an answer to all the problems of the world.  And that’s why when I got home and read that passage from Matthew, I gave pause also.
The servant in Jesus’ parable in Matthew had an answer to every problem also: I owe more money than I could ever re-pay to my master?  Beg his forgiveness; grovel at his feet, and when he forgives me --- ta-da, problem solved.  Someone owe me money?  Toss him in jail until he pays me every nickel --- ta-da, problem solved.  He had an answer to every problem, but did you notice HOW he constructed the answers?  Every solution benefited him; that was how he created a “good” solution.  His ideas were the most important!  His ideas “solved” THE problem!  And the problem was “THE” problem because it impacted him. 
And then his master intervened, and then he REALLY saw a problem which impacted him.
My friends in the coffee shop, and I, had thinking not too unlike that of the servant.  Worldwide problems and their solutions we interpreted in terms of our experiences.  Local problems we interpreted in terms of how the solutions would solve our state’s financial problems (and therefore our own potential tax problems).  And when the problem hit bluntly home, we were quiet.  But in the back of our minds, I am sure, were thoughts about how this might impact us: With the lost tax base, would our taxes go up, or services down?  And for some: Will it impact my next election?  Will homes be dumped on the market, further lowering prices?  We all had quiet thoughts, but I doubt that first and foremost in any of our minds was the potential impact on our neighbors.  At the table this morning was a group of Christian men, and certainly we’d probably all have recalled the parable I later read, yet we missed living the example given in it.  We could quote that parable, but that is not the same thing as living it, from your heart, in our attitudes about things impacting our neighbor.
And that’s what I thought, what hit me, as I read the parable in Matthew.  The key point was: “Unless you forgive your neighbor,” unless you put HIM not yourself first, you’re not following the example of your God.  So often we look at how things impact us first, and not others.  But whether it was forgiving or healing or loving, Jesus acted for others first, not himself.  He thought and worried about others first, and He told us we should follow His example.  And then there was one thing more …
In the parable, if the servant couldn’t follow the example of the master, the merciful master, then the master would show him a new master, the just one.   And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.  And just to make it clear, Jesus said:   So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. 
God teaches us as a loving father would do:  “Son, you can learn this lesson the easy way, or the hard way.  The choice is yours.”              
Why do we so often pick the hard way?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Freedom and Entirely Just Outcomes: Impossible

It is with some satisfaction, some “Aha!!” said aloud, when I rarely discover some succinct words which state what I have myself have believed (as stated in my usual 10,000 words or more).  I saw such a succinct statement in the Wall Street Journal this Saturday morning.
The Journal article was a book review, actually two reviews, of books by economists espousing one economic theory or another.  The reviewer of the books was Kenneth Monogue, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics.  In his review, professor Monogue makes a statement about two concerns of many --- myself included --- in this country today:  our freedoms and our desire for economic justice.
These are his words:
“There is no doubt that freedom on the one hand and entirely just outcomes on the other are (however judged) impossible to combine.  Yet believing that we have such immense powers over nature, we yearn to be able to create a society that guarantees the happiness and contentment that would result from the universal satisfaction of human needs.”
I found that first sentence to be exactly what I believe, but could not so succinctly state.  We have freedom in this country, and we so desire just outcomes, yet in a democracy those two things cannot be perfectly combined.  It is impossible.  The desired perfect happiness, totally just outcomes, here on earth is beyond man’s ability to accomplish.  There are always those who will desire unjust things, but think them just.  There will always be those who will not be able to overcome their own pride and greed, and put themselves first.  Man is imperfect.  In perfect freedom, there are many good men who would do many good things, but never all men, and never all good things. 
Jesus said: “The poor will always be with you.”  Yet there are many people, even in this country, who would think they can prove Him wrong.
I’m aware how some would answer Professor Monogue.  They would say: “We don’t want perfect justice, we just want better justice.”  But Professor Monogue, looking back at history, notes that even with the advances made in social justice, it is never enough for some elite intellectuals.  “Better” must be made even better.    
Professor Monogue goes on to state that he worries “that state authority would be used despotically for redistribution in the name of justice” --- exactly what is being attempted by many in our government today.  But those are the failed ideas of Marx and Lenin. 
The Journal article references a new book by Professor Monogue, The Servile Mind:  How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life.  If he proves as astute in his moral evaluations as his economic analyses here, you may be reading a review of his here at some point in the future.