Thursday, March 5, 2020

Lent 2020: What Is the Point of Prayer?

You can't always get what you want,
But if you try sometime, you just might find
You get what you need.
~ English philosophers Jagger and Richards

Today's readings are a challenge for me. In one, Queen Esther feels alone and in anguish but trusts that God will hear her prayer to protect her and her people in the face of their enemies. Then in the Book of Matthew, Jesus tells us:
"Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and the one who seeks, finds. And to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asked for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish? If you, then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?"
In everyday real life, we know that things don't always work out the way we want when we pray. And there's the catch, the unspoken subtext in Jesus' words. Prayer isn't just about asking for what we want, because God already knows what he wants for our lives. And sometimes what he wants and what we want are in conflict. And that means that sometimes the answer to our prayers is "No."

In a self-absorbed culture where we've grown accustomed to getting what we want when we want it, this can be a difficult idea to accept. But truly, it's not always about us. Prayer is not about rubbing a magic lamp and getting a wish from a genie. It's about understanding what God wants for our life.

This can be a painful lesson to learn. When I was a teenager, I began experiencing debilitating panic attacks. They could last for days, even weeks. The panic would rise up and I'd feel dizzy and sweaty. My vision would go blurry and my heart would race. I'd pace the floor on sleepless nights. I thought I was going to die. Sometimes the attacks would subside, but I'd wait anxiously for the next wave to hit, because it always would.

I was diagnosed many years later with panic disorder -- a situation in which one has panic attacks out of the context of anything that would actually cause panic. My neurons were misfiring, sending my autonomic nervous system into fight-or-flight response.

Decades later, my autonomic nervous system seems to still be malfunctioning, only now in ways that affect some of my body's physical functions. Many tests, procedures, and medications later, no one has ever been able to tell me what's wrong. This is the daily hell of living in my body. It is apparently my cross to bear in this life.

Now, anyone who's ever had panic attacks knows how terrifying they are, not to mention how debilitating. And when you're a teenager, when your body is young and supposed to still be functioning normally, you can't understand why your body is rebelling against you. You worry about your future, your ability to live an independent life -- or your ability to live at all.

My parents were never much help. My mom thought I should just "snap out of it." And so when doctors and their meds failed to help, I did the only other thing I could think of to do. I prayed.

Despite being the first Catholic converts in their families, my parents brought over a lot of their evangelical Protestant backgrounds with them -- and as a result, our TV was quite often tuned to watch the televangelists on the local religious channel. The ones who would have you put your hand up against theirs on the screen and pray to God for healing. The preacher would randomly announce that God was telling him a girl in Nebraska was being healed right this moment of her disease. I prayed that one day the preacher would say that a young man in Michigan was being healed of his panic attacks. I begged God for that to happen. I spent more than one night on my hands and knees, tears streaming down my face, as I pleaded for God to have mercy on me and fix my body.

But relief never came. My prayers went unanswered.

Or did they?

At the time, I felt abandoned by a God who didn't care. Over the next few years, the experience led me to the conclusion that belief in God was superstitious bullshit. And although I still felt drawn toward the spiritual life, I put my childhood beliefs behind me and set out for the East, looking for something that made my suffering make more sense. Buddhism was that place for many years. But a confluence of events later in life led me back to where I started, though it took me a few more years of hard discernment and soul-searching to be able to come back.

The only way I could come back was with a deeper understanding of what the idea of God in the tradition of my youth was really all about. I had to look deeper, beneath the surface literal meanings I was raised to believe in. And it was there that things began to open up to me and finally make sense. And one of the things that suddenly took on much more clarity was the purpose and power of prayer.

It finally occurred to me that prayer isn't about putting in a coin and making a wish. It's about conforming ourselves to God's will for our lives. Ask and you shall receive, Jesus says, but what he doesn't say is that you won't necessarily receive what you want. The whole point is to let go of what we want and to have faith in God's plans for our lives. We may not understand God's plans. We might not even like them. But that's not our call. It never was. We don't control the fate of our lives. We have the free will to make choices, of course, but we're not going to alter the divine plans that are written down in our Book of Life.

"The prayer of a righteous man avails much," says James, and maybe that's so. Maybe God grants what we ask for if we have the right people on board with us. But even if so, we're still only being granted what God had in mind for us all along. We can't change God's mind. It just doesn't work that way. All we really can do is say, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death, "Not my will but yours be done."

Of course, this sends us deep into the ethical and theological thicket of why a loving God allows people to suffer. I don't have a good answer for that, and I don't know that any theologian ever has come up with a satisfactory answer. The Buddhists might say that we're working off the karma of a past life. The Catholics would talk about redemptive suffering, passing through the purifying fires of our trials and tribulations, to humble us, to remind us that we're not in charge and never were. Even that is a somewhat unsatisfying answer, but for me it works better than any other answer I've encountered.

I think this is why the Orthodox idea of theosis is so attractive to me. If the purpose of our religious and spiritual life is to take up our cross daily and become more like Christ, to "become by grace what God is by nature," in the words of St. Athanasius, then maybe suffering finds a purpose. I know my suffering has humbled me, and maybe that's the point of it. I still have a long way to go, as I pass through the refiner's fire of this life -- but maybe this life is just the beginning of the process. Maybe theosis continues when we leave this body. For me, that's another way of looking at Purgatory. We have to be cleansed and purified before we can enter the presence of God.

If so, then let the purgation continue. My challenge is to not lose faith in the process. It's the challenge laid before all of us who believe even when our suffering seems to make no sense. May we all persevere and run the race to the end.

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