Be Careful What You Pray For

(Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.)

It was a typical session, filled with the usual questions: saints, purgatory and confession. Mary used her Bible to raise objections to Catholic teaching on these matters. Even though she had recently started coming back to Mass with her inquiring friend, it was clear she was still inclined to view such things as confessing to a priest and praying to saints as superstitious idolatry.

As the session drew to a close, I invited any remaining questions. Mary leaned forward and struggled for words.

“Just how powerful is — a Mass?”

I didn't understand what she meant, so her friend prompted, “Tell her what you had it said for.”

Oh, I got it. She had requested a Mass for an intention and she wanted to know if it would work, to put it bluntly. Mary looked sheepish as she answered.

“I had it said so I would find a husband.”

Waddya know, Ms. Fundamentalist, I wanted to say. Look who’s superstitious now?

But I couldn’t, of course, not only because it wouldn't have been exactly charitable of me, but also because, I have an entire boatload of superstitious notions I ride around in myself.

They may not be of the outright, say the rosary before a trip – panic if I don’t have a religious medal around my neck – can’t miss Mass because I’m afeard somethin’ ugly might happen to me if I don’t go – variety, but they’re there, to be sure.

I quit playing the lottery, an admirable choice, but mostly because I had a sneaking suspicion that in response to my gambling for an easy fortune, God was going to see to it that my writings would never get published in a big, income-sustaining way since I was trying to take the easy way to security rather than relying on the talents He gave me.

I’m also highly superstitious about the process of my writing being accepted for publication. It’s simple. I believe that if I really pin a lot on something being published, it will, of course, be rejected. So I try to forget about it as soon as I send it in.

I also firmly believe that if something good is in the offing, talking about that potential good thing is the sure way to ruin it. I've recently endured the stress of selling a house. The first time I thought I had a really interested buyer (she came back three times and the last time, she looked at me meaningfully and said, “I'll call you tomorrow.” Doesn't that imply interest?) – I blabbed all over Lakeland about it, and sure enough, she never did call back. The second time, I learned my lesson and kept my mouth shut, telling only my husband about the couple. It worked. They bought it. Now, if I can only bring myself to take the sign down….

I suppose if you examined these things closely, you’d see fear, lack of confidence, and a rather stunning worldview that has my certain failure as a centerpiece, and maybe at the root of it, a vague suspicion that God has it out for me.

And like Mary, I indulge in my own kind of wishful thinking and a lot of “if only’s” – not as much related to lifestyle, but time. I’d be happier if it were the weekend, if it were summer vacation, if my kids were with me, if my kids would just get out of my hair, if I were just working on an article, if I could just escape this stupid article … it never ends.

Knowing all of this about myself, for years now, I've focused what spiritual life I have on acceptance: accepting life as it is, and trying to find God’s presence in whatever is. Of great help to me (besides, I have to admit, Buddha's Four Noble Truths) is a little book that was written a long time ago and which I first read about the same time I had this conversation with Mary. It’s called The Sacrament of the Present Moment and was written as guidance for a congregation of Visitation Sisters by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a 17th century French Jesuit.

To de Caussade, the essence of life is, “…the purest and simplest commitment to the will of God in whatever form it might present itself.” That is, we creatures who are made in God’s image will find peace in this life when we mold our lives to our Creator’s will. And where is the will of God revealed? In everyday life, specifically, as the title suggests, in the present moment.

“God speaks to every individual through what happens to them moment by moment … The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams, but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds.”

God is here now for us. He’s not waiting until the end of the work week or summer vacation or until we get married, divorced, well again, or, ahem … published. He’s indeed everywhere, all the time. One way to remember this, something I have to do quite a bit, is at various times during the day, at good, bad, and ordinary moments, repeat the following words:

“This is it.”

The past is gone and the future may never arrive, or at least may not bring what we hope. In the end, this moment is all we have.

It’s not an invitation to quietism or passivity. By no means. When we seek God in the present moment, we may indeed find a space where we can accept reality for what it is, but we also might find something surprising: the strength to change and a nudge telling us in what direction to go. I think peace usually evolves from a combination of both: acceptance and hope.

After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, two bystanders (angels, we presume) asked the apostles, “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?” I have to ask myself the same question sometimes – what am I daydreaming about? Why am I sitting around either drowning in nostalgia for the past or fantasizing about some alternate reality I’ve convinced myself is more preferable to what is? Why am I so determined to be blind to God with me, here and now?

Superstition is all about control and manipulation of reality – superstitious religious practice doesn't respect God's sovereignty and wisdom. It's an attempt to manipulate God into giving us what we want. Offering thanks is a foundation of the spiritual life, but too often, we root what faith we have in the things about life we like, that we can then ascribe to God. What if we didn't get what we wanted? Could we still give thanks? Could we still be grateful? Could we still believe? Would we still say, “God is good?”

Faith enables us to accept what we've been given with gratitude and is lived within the context of who God is – as Jean Danielou puts it, “God is, above all, the one whom I cannot make use of.” Think about it.

It's ironic that many of us who are parents spend our days denying our children what they ask for, tuning out their whines and resisting their manipulations, assuring them all the while that our response is in their best interest. “Life’s not fair, “ we snap, “Be grateful for what you have.” But then we think nothing of turning to God ourselves, full of our own demands, thinking that if we say our prayers just so, our Parent will surely cave in.

Mary's loneliness was apparent. Divorced for many years, she told me that she yearned for married life again, for companionship. Why not have a Mass said in hopes that God would hear her and give her someone to fill that void?

In pastoral moments such as these, it's advisable not to be obnoxious and snap, “Well, hey, Miss Mary, Miss I'm-Leaving-the-Church-Because-It's-Too-Superstitious. NOW you come begging!”

No, we don't do that.

Instead, I remembered deCaussade and the lessons I was struggling to integrate into my own life, with its own difficulties, at the moment. I suggested (telling myself as much as her of course) that it might be more fruitful and less frustrating if she spent her prayer time examining her life before God and instead of hoping that God would change it, asking God for the grace to be able to accept it.

I tried to assure her that of course God wanted her to be happy, and if she listened to Him, she might be able to figure out where the source of such happiness might be in her life right now, the way it is.

And I know I said the right thing. I said what I was supposed to say, consistent with everything a lot of wise people have taught me about the spiritual life and what I’m trying to do myself. But I still couldn't resist, as I drove home that night, whispering a little prayer of my own.

“Please God,” I found myself murmuring at a stop light, “she wants it so much. Find Mary a husband.” Amen.

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