How Do We Know if God is Listening When We Pray?
“O my Lord, make the world a better place. Help the people with stone hearts and make them pure with love. Hear my prayer, O Lord and help us to make sadness, happiness. Come to me, hear my prayer, love us endlessly and make us feel welcome in this big world. Amen.”
As I left Saturday evening Mass at St. Mary’s, Lauren Hammer stopped to say hello and shared the beautiful prayer above, written by her daughter, Veronica. It is a prayer filled with the optimism of youth and deep trust that God loves us and wants the best for us.
Veronica’s words got me thinking about prayer. My prayers range from the repetition of sacred words given to us by Jesus in the Our Father, where we are instructed to reach out to God not as a distant, unapproachable entity, but as Abba, Daddy, who we ask to provide our daily bread.
Or the repetitions of the Hail Mary, as we say the rosary. Not mindless repetition, but a simple salutation that never fails to calm me as I reach out to the Mother of Jesus to share burdens which only a mother would understand.
Last Sunday, I went for a walk in the woods to take pictures of the small signs of autumn, dandelion leaves that are now deep purple, foxtail rust colored, and willows vibrant yellow. Perhaps this week or next the hillsides around my home will be blanketed in gold and I will make my annual pilgrimage over Boreas Pass with my dogs in the back of the car, riding beneath a canopy of quaking Aspen.
But before I savor the magnitude of autumn’s full splendor, I want to notice autumn in its infancy. The incremental changes. I want to catch each one, to appreciate this most visible evidence of the passage of time.
Yet what I discovered was no matter how close my observation, when I turned around I discovered the next day something I had missed. Leaves that overnight had turned from green to gold, patches on the hillside that had two days ago been chartreuse were suddenly gilded. How did I not notice?
Perhaps searching for God’s presence in my life is like my autumn safari. I pray all the time. I pray when I’m driving and when I’m at church and when I’m in bed. I pray intently and then look for signs that God has heard my prayers, that something has changed, that all these petitions that spill from my mouth or run through my mind have had some impact.
What I am really looking for is some sign God has heard me that I matter that I can affect some change in my life, when instead it feels as if I’m pushing the wind.
Sometimes, as with my experience this autumn, I turn and see things have changed, not by my own doing, and I wonder how I missed it, how I missed God’s presence.
At other times, I turn and as when I see the entire hillside covered in shimmering golden Aspen, I turn and see the tapestry of my life and it is only from that distant perspective I see that by God’s grace, all the difficulties and joys and wrong choices and terrible mistakes all led me to this point and there is nowhere else I would rather be than here.
And somehow, I understand that the thousands of prayers I recited during those desolate times, the prayers of thanksgiving I tossed toward Heaven in good times, the silence that broke my heart when I felt as if I could not go on without God’s consolation, they were all threads in the tapestry of my life. They were the individual leaves of gold I captured with my camera, while I was unable to notice the forest that changed behind my back.
I don’t really understand how prayer works, but we all pray whether we know it or not. Even atheists pray, though I suspect they are not aware that their admonitions against the existence of God are actually their own soul’s longing to be answered in the negative. We all pray, because we can’t help ourselves.
I don’t believe the prayers I say when driving into town are any less sacred than the prayers I say when kneeling in a pew. I believe what matters to God is the sincerity of our hearts. Because God can see into our hearts even deeper than we, because he knows us better than we know ourselves, he understands our prayers more than we do, and as the Bible says, when we are at a loss for words it is the Holy Spirit who interprets our groans and prays on our behalf.
Let us continue to talk with God in all the ways that we know. In formal prayer, or as we walk through the woods enjoying God’s good creation, in joyful thanksgiving, and in sorrowful pleas, let our hearts always be open to speaking with God, and to listening for his quiet reply. As Veronica prayed, I also pray we will discover God’s ever present love for us.