Ask Alice about Catholicism
How does God “answer” prayers?

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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Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

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