I rushed through the house, fixing dinner and straightening the house. The babysitter would arrive any minute, so my husband and I could attend a school fundraiser. As I swiped the bathroom mirror with a cloth, I caught my wedding ring and, not wanting to damage the setting even more than I already have, I set the ring aside to continue my single-minded pursuit of the appearance of domestic bliss.
One week later, the ring is still missing. I finally told Craig about it, who promptly said he’d replace it (as though such a thing could ever be replaced). Then I went online and bemoaned my fate. “St. Jude … help!”
Moments later, I saw with crystal clarity the cultural and theological “devotional divide” that splits my circle of friends and family. The camps were fairly evenly divided between unequivocal support (“Tony, Tony come around . . .”) and chastisement (a.k.a. “Don’t you know you can go straight to GOD for this kind of thing?”). Theology, Facebook style.
Didn’t I know I could pray directly to God? Uh-huh. Well aware of that. God and I have been on regular speaking terms for about forty years now. That doesn’t stop me from calling in reinforcements. The last time I lost my ring, I asked my guardian angel to go and sit on it until I could find it. When Craig and I discovered the ring in the middle of a snow-covered strip mall parking lot, the ring was centered in a heart-shaped “bald patch” on the asphalt. As though the angel had literally sat upon it until we arrived.
Friends in High Places
For centuries believers have sent their petitions in care of Mary and the saints, confident that those perfected in heaven are in a better position to pray in a way that is consistent with the will of the Father. Here on earth, so much obstructs our view: selfishness, pride, and weakness keep us from persevering in the battle as constantly and vigorously as we ought. The saints do not have this problem; the “cloud of witnesses” of which Scriptures speak (Hebrews 12:1) provide essential spiritual reinforcement.
The Catechism (2683) says:
The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were "put in charge of many things" (Mt 25:23). Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.
Does God care about the little details of my life, including missing wedding rings? No doubt. He is big enough and wise enough and all-loving enough to handle this and every other crisis that comes my way. And yes, because I am a daughter of God, my every need is only a whispered prayer away from the ear of God.
So why bother to ask others — in heaven or on earth, for that matter — to take up my intentions? Why are we commanded to confess our sins and to pray for one another (James 5:16), and why do the prayers of the saints ascend to the throne of God (Rev 8:4), if each believer has within himself the power to get everything he needs directly from the throne of grace?
Could the answer be . . . because we are a Body ? Because the God who created us, made us to be in relationship with one another? When Jesus returned to heaven, He did not leave behind a book but a group of men to guide His Church. And when He spoke of being the Vine (John 15:5), He said that those who continued to “abide in me” would bear “much fruit.”
Nowhere do the Scriptures say that we get cut off from that Vine when we leave earth. Rather, the ongoing teaching of the Church has always been that the faithful are perpetually connected in Jesus.
The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament — a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men." The Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God . Because men’s communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race . In her, this unity is already begun, since she gathers men "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues"; at the same time, the Church is the "sign and instrument" of the full realization of the unity yet to come (CCC #775).
When we include the saints in heaven in our intercessions, asking them to join our chorus of adoration, petition, supplication, and blessing — from heaven — we bear witness in a particular way of this unity, which will be perfected in heaven.
It is this witness , this acknowledgment of our utter dependence upon God and our need for one another, that is the real need for prayer. Not primarily to get us the parking space, or to find the ring, or to get a temporary reprieve from illness or pain. But, in the words of C.S. Lewis:
I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time…waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.
“God of the Gumball”
This realization — that we are in fact in need of changing — is something we as human beings are prone to forget at times. We want God to change our circumstances : find the parking spot, heal the disease, find the wedding ring. We forget that it is precisely through these little struggles that we are forced to grow stronger and taller in grace.
When we lose sight of this, we begin to serve the “God of the Gumball Machine”: put in a prayer, get out what we want. A deeply felt sense of failure washes over some Christians when they ask God for a specific intention, and the answer is not what they’d hoped. Some see it as a signal to pray even harder… or to give up altogether, as though the battle has no intrinsic value.
The Catechism offers a third perspective:
"Pray constantly . . . always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father." (1 Thes 5:17) St. Paul adds, "Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance making supplication for all the saints." (Eph 6:18) For "we have not been commanded to work, to keep watch and to fast constantly, but it has been laid down that we are to pray without ceasing." (Evagrius Ponticus, Pract . 49: PG 40, 1245C.) This tireless fervor can come only from love. Against our dullness and laziness, the battle of prayer is that of humble, trusting, and persevering love. This love opens our hearts to three enlightening and life-giving facts of faith about prayer (#2742).
The Catechism defines these three facts as follows: (1) It is always possible to pray; (2) Prayer is a vital necessity; and (3) Prayer and the Christian life are “inseparable.” Furthermore, John 15:16-17 shows that there is an intrinsic connection between asking the Father . . . and truly loving one another.
Never Walk Alone
Is there ever a time when we should just hunker down on our own knees, and abandon ourselves to “the Great Alone”? Absolutely. The intimate conversation of Father and child is an indispensable part of family life. And yet, it is not the only part. Most of life is spent in the company of one another, helping each other and conversing with one another.
To abandon oneself to Divine Providence in abject humility and deliberate solitude, is one thing; to suppose oneself not to need — or be in the invisible company of — other members of the Body is a prideful delusion. Just as the Trinity is an eternal flow of love from one divine person to the next, so the Church — the Bride of Christ — is sustained as a Body with an eternal infusion of Spirit.
The “Jesus and me” — devoid of any other spiritual attachment — that predominates in some Christian communities has no more to do with true spiritual intimacy than a teenage crush has to do with married love. True attachment is anchored in family; isolation produces delusion, confusion, and death.
This revelation of unity is more important than any earthly possession. So when I ask the saints to help me find my wedding ring, I’m simply asking my big brothers and sisters in faith to give me a hand. And like any good parent, the Father smiles to see His children working together, and loving each other. He doesn’t worry that they aren’t focused totally on Him. He just sits back and enjoys the camaraderie.
Are we never to approach God on our own? Can we not speak to Him, heart-to-heart? Will He not hear our prayers? Of course we can, and do, and He does.
As does the entire company of heaven, who intercedes on our behalf.