The last time that I wrote, I spoke of prayer as the lynchpin of the Gospel charter of alms giving – prayer – fasting as it appears in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Today’s readings focus our attention on prayer once again. The first reading from the Book of Esther shows us a woman in desperate straits who turns to God in prayer. The Gospel reading is the familiar “ask, seek, knock” quote from conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. Both readings bring up the entire subject of intercessory prayer.
In his Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’ Kempis writes that the only thing that we can alter through prayer is ourselves. At face value, this would seem to fly in the face of the efficacy of intercessory prayer. Yet Thomas’ assertion has been affirmed by many other spiritual writers before and since. So the question arises: Does God change the path of events because of our prayers? Does intercessory prayer really make a difference?
At the outset I am inclined to say that this is one of those mysteries that we will never fully understand in this life. As our lives and our experience of prayer unfold, they, like a rose bud, present us with an ever-changing perspective on intercessory prayer. Just yesterday, a friend wrote on my Facebook page that he was grateful for all the prayers that had been offered for a woman who was undergoing surgery. The surgery had been successful. He said, “Prayer works.” Was it part of God’s will all along that this would be the outcome? Did all those prayers influence the path of this event?
When things that we pray for don’t go our way, some are fond of saying, “God did answer your prayers; the answer was ‘no.’” Quite frankly, that answer has never been a favorite of mine. I think it is a cruel remark and refrain from ever saying such things. At the same time, people will point to Jesus’ prayer during his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked God to save him from the ordeal of his passion and death. Obviously, God did not spare him from his trial and execution. However, the key to understanding this and all intercessory prayers is Jesus’ words “Not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
We say these words every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is not to say that God sometimes “wills” the bad things that happen in our world. Actually, just the opposite is true. If it were left up to God, nothing bad would ever happen. Unfortunately, sin disrupts God’s will. All of the disease and all of the misfortunes that afflict our world are a direct result of sin. So what Thomas a’ Kempis has to say about intercessory prayer is really true. Prayer works by changing us. Prayer makes us aware of what we must do in our constant struggle to turn away from sin and toward God. Prayer changes my attitudes as well as my behaviors. Prayer makes me open to God’s will in my life. Prayer melts our stony hearts and gives us hearts of flesh on which God can write his Love. Miracles happen when we change.
When we make requests of God, when we intercede, we are drawing God’s attention to our concerns. In expressing those concerns in prayer, we are focusing our own attention on the areas where our conversion is still on-going. Prayer provides us with the path we need to follow as we move closer to God. Perhaps we might all add Jesus’ words to each of our intercessory prayers: “Not as I will but as you will.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator