Prayer Doesn't Have to be Perfect
Let us begin with a story: Equally qualified, Carmen and Diane both sought employment with the same local company. Both prayed to God for help, and the company granted both women interviews.
Carmen was immediately given a position in the company. Full of joy, Carmen thanked God for answering her prayers. Diane was told that she was not the right candidate for the position. Diane couldn’t understand why God failed her. Seeing Diane looking rejected and depressed, Carmen tried to console her with the following words: “Diane, as they say, when God closes one door, he opens….”
But Diane didn’t allow Carmen to finish. In anger she yelled, “No! I don’t want to hear that nonsense! Those clichés don’t help me now!” Diane stormed out of the room leaving Carmen dumbfounded. Shaking her head, Carmen prayed that Diane would have more faith in God.
Carmen may have believed that her attempt to console Diane was noble, but Diane felt it was preachy. In reality, does Carmen understand God’s will better than Diane does? Does God favor Carmen over Diane? Is Diane’s anger justifiable? Does Carmen believe that Diane’s anger makes her less faithful?
There may be no answers to these difficult questions, but the 16th century Spanish mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, may have wisely advised someone like Carmen:
“Let us look at our own shortcomings and leave other people’s alone; for those who live carefully ordered lives are apt to be shocked at everything and we might well learn very important lessons from the persons who shock us. Our outward comportment and behavior may be better than theirs, but this, though good, is not the most important thing; there is no reason why we should expect everyone else to travel by our own road; and we should not attempt to point them to the spiritual path when perhaps we do not know what it is.”
Sometimes our biggest obstacles in prayer are attitudes like Carmen’s which fail to understand the spiritual struggle with all its intense emotions and profound doubts judging it as a lack of faith. In reality, it is part of the deepening spiritual journey that many faithful believers, mystics and saints, have experienced. One of the greatest modern saints, St. Teresa of Calcutta, in a collection of personal letters revealed that she struggled with doubts and darkness in her spiritual life for nearly 50 years:
“In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
Mother Teresa’s life and struggles are a testimony to a faith not hindered by doubt, but rather deepened by it. Faith does not eliminate doubt but allows doubt to transform it. Yet, many of us find difficulty in understanding this experience. Why?
Many of us were taught to believe that prayer is always polite and clean. We should never raise our voices. We should never doubt, and we always accept all things as being God’s will. We never consider the possibility that sometimes prayer is rough and messy. We do not consider that we can use strong words, scream, and even question why. Maybe all things are not God’s will.
Prayer is simply presenting ourselves to God the way we are without masks, guises or fluff. If we feel angry, anger is our prayer. If we feel depressed, depression is our prayer. If we feel frustrated, frustration is our prayer. If we pray with an honest heart then the words we use, the feelings we have, and the way we pray is never inappropriate. Prayer doesn’t have to be perfect; it only has to be honest.
The Biblical scene of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26, 36-46) reveals the nature of prayer. We see a Jesus praying spontaneously, emotionally and, most importantly, honestly. Jesus struggled to join His will to His Father’s, and He didn’t sugar-coat His words about it. Jesus sweated and was anguishing in prayer. This is very contrary to the concept that prayer always brings us interior peace of some concept like Nirvana.
In reality, prayer is a struggle, and we shouldn’t evaluate a prayer as successful if we get the “right emotions” like peace and happiness. Many times, we feel that our prayer time didn’t go well, we were distracted. But that is not important. Prayer is what God does in our lives. Often, the fruits of prayer come after our prayer time in our daily lives when we are about doing ordinary things. Many times, those fruits come weeks, months and even years later. In the case of Jesus, it came three days later. What is important is that God sees our efforts in trying and appreciates our attempts. That is why the struggle is the prayer.
Columban Fr. Chris Saenz lives and works in St. Columbans, Nebraska.