By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
In these trying times of a pandemic, many people are expressing a beautiful desire to pray — to pray for protection from the coronavirus, for fast and full recoveries, for economic stability, for fruitful occupation in isolation, for peace at home and in our nation, for honesty and solidarity in our global community, and for so many other gifts.
Understandably, sometimes people also express bewilderment and disappointment when their earnest prayers appear to go unanswered: loved ones get sick and some even die; jobs are lost; isolation is difficult to endure; peace seems elusive; and the leaders of media and governments around the world sometimes seem so unedifying.
Of course, things are not all bad, and there are many testimonies to the fruits of suffering. For example, a friend of the monastery and leader of a food bank recently wrote to our abbot about the overwhelming generosity of donors at this time. He offered the motto: “In times of chaos, caritas.” To be sure, there is light in all this. Nevertheless, I want to speak to those who feel the disappointment of apparently unanswered prayers.
Praying is an act of humility. We pray knowing that at the end of the day what we really mean is, “Thy will be done.” We ask for many things, and God wants us to ask for them. However, what we really want and need is for God’s own will to be accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven.” This means many of our prayers could seem to go unanswered. We suffer, and many good things we rightly desire we might not receive on this earth. But we should always remember that, in this sense, many of God’s own “prayers” go unanswered as well. That’s right, in a certain sense, many of the good things God desires for us are not achieved in this life. He too is waiting for his good will to be realized “on earth as it is in heaven.”
God created the world. He made it distinct from himself. Flowers grow and bees fly by the power he gives them. We too have our own lives and freedom, and God does not override them in order to achieve immediately what he wants. He lets the world act. He never abandons it, but he works out his plan in a way that incorporates — not overrides — his creatures and their freedom. Precisely because of this, when God dwelt among us, he endured many things he never wanted: sin and ignorance, disease and death, broken relationships, and so on… God wants every one of us to be holy and happy forever. But when we look around, how many of his desires — “his prayers” — go unanswered in this life! If we think we are saddened by our frustrated desires for happiness in this life, just imagine how much more God is longing for our happiness!
Is it any surprise that our prayers can seem unanswered, when Jesus’ own prayers could seem unanswered? He suffered so many things in his life that he should not have suffered and that he did not want to suffer (cf. Mt 26:39; Lk 22:42). But he did so willingly, because he wants to fix things. He wants to extend God’s reign “on earth as it is in heaven.” He knows that the Father’s plan is good and that it resolves the sad story of sin and death in an unimaginably happy way. So, he joins our sufferings, our frustrated prayers, in order to lead us through the difficult aspects of our earthly life and into the fullness of God’s will — into heaven.
Jesus made our sufferings places in which we can continue to hope for heaven. Our sufferings are placed in the bigger drama of God’s will. We see what happens “on earth” in light of the will that reigns “in heaven.” Therefore, we know that when we pray, whatever we might ask for, what we want most of all is that God’s will be done. No one knows what he or she really needs, in the end. And so, our prayers are like the prayers of humble children: we ask for what we think we want, but we know that at the end of the day, we just want our all-powerful and all-loving God to take control, to extend his rule on earth as it is heaven.
In the end, no prayer goes unanswered, so long as it is made “in the name of the Son” who in all things seeks the wonderful will of the Father (cf. John 14:13-14). Let us entrust ourselves to this will as it unfolds on earth and into heaven.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.