Pray as You Can

March 19, 2014

There is a story told of a Jewish farmer who, working in his field one day, forgot the time and could not get back before sunset for the Sabbath. He had to spend the day in the field waiting for sunset the following day before he could return home. He was met by his disapproving rabbi who upbraided him for his carelessness. What did you do all day out there in the field? he asked.

“Did you at least pray?” The farmer answered, “Rabbi, I am not a clever man. I don’t know how to pray properly. What I did was simply to recite the alphabet all day and let God form the words himself.”

Sometimes when we come to pray we can feel like that farmer, having nothing to give God but the mundane letters of our lives. No great insights, no revelations, no deep feelings of devotion, just the ordinary, mostly unremarkable happenings of our days. But if we are faithful and continue to offer our mite, we will discover that God is indeed the God of “the bits and pieces” of our lives, as Patrick Kavanagh said.

From the alphabet that we offer Him, He writes a great story. Our seeming inability to pray is no barrier to His power. We may have very little but, like the widow that the prophet Elijah met, our meager offering is enough. When he asked her for a bit of bread she said she had nothing but a handful of flour and a little oil out of which she was going to make a last meal for herself and her son before they lay down to die (of starvation). But for Elijah that was enough; he asked her to make a little cake for him and then prepare something for herself and her son. “The jar of fl our shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil dry,” he promised. Her paltry offering became a bottomless store for the future. (1 Kings 17:10-16)

We cannot know how our little prayers may affect others, how, unknown to us, they may help effect a change in another’s life. One day a woman, a Jew, and her friend went to look at the cathedral in Frankfurt. While they were standing there in reverent silence, a woman with her shopping basket came in and knelt in a pew in the empty church to pray. This made a deep impression on the observer who later on wrote that she had seen people turn up in time for the service in Protestant churches and in the synagogue. But this unknown woman had come in the middle of the day’s work to the empty cathedral as if to talk with a friend.

“I have never been able to forget,” wrote Edith Stein, the Jewish philosopher and teacher who at the time was being called to the faith. Not long afterwards she became a Catholic and later entered the Carmelite monastery in Cologne. In August 1942 she was, with many others, including her own sister, taken to Auschwitz where she died in the gas chambers.

Edith Stein, now canonized, is but one of many who have been touched by the “little prayers” of others. Maybe we will discover there are no little prayers at all, that all prayer from a good heart is packed with the punch of the Spirit, so to speak. Even the alphabet.