Some people ask this question less diplomatically: What good is prayer? What does prayer do? One thing I’ve found helpful to consider is what prayer is not: It’s not the coin you put in the celestial gumball machine that gives you a return on your investment in kind. Prayer is neither payment in advance for services rendered nor is it divine bribery. God will not say: OK, already—25 rosaries is enough! You get the vintage muscle car!
Yet Jesus does use the image of a harried judge entreated by a widow about her cause so long and earnestly that he gives in for fear she might get violent. If even the hard-hearted judge caves in to just demands, won’t God be even more likely to attend to ours? This sounds good in a parable. Still, most of us can remember having prayed quite hard for things we didn’t get.
The 6th-century mystic John Climacus was no stranger to this problem. “When requests are made to God and are not immediately answered, the reason may be one of the following: either that the petition is premature, or because it has been made unworthily . . . or because, if granted, it would lead to conceit, or because negligence and carelessness would result.”
Bede the Venerable, 7th-century Doctor of the Church, agrees at least that timing is a factor: “It also sometimes happens that we seek things entirely related to salvation with our eager petitions and devoted actions, yet . . . the result of our petition is postponed to some future time.” He notes that we’ve all been praying “Thy kingdom come” for quite a while, yet no one has yet to have the kingdom delivered at the end of the prayer. It will come “at the proper time,” he concludes
In the 12th-century the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux probably offered the most popular answer: “[God] will give either what we ask, or what he knows to be more profitable to us.” This echoes the prayer of Jesus in the garden: “If it be your will, let this cup pass; still, not my will, but yours be done.”
I’ve been praying for 35 years for a reconciling of hearts between two people I love very much. One of them died two years ago without the healing ever taking place. Yet I haven’t stopped praying for their reconciliation. Because I believe they both need it, now more than ever. I leave it to God to work out the details.
• Matthew 6:5-13; 7:7–11; Luke 11:1-13; 18:1-14; 22:39-46; John 11:41-42; 15:7; 16:26 (see also 2 Maccabees 12:38-46)
• From Saint Augustine's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount
• Prayer by Joyce Rupp (Orbis Books, 2007)
• Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris (Mariner Books, 2001)
• Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom (Paulist Press, 1970)
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