There is a scene in the fine movie Becket where the newly ascended archbishop is made aware of how one of the barons has taken one of his priests into custody, the latter accused of debauching a girl in his parish.
As the scene progresses, messengers arrive to inform Becket that the priest had tried to escape but was captured and put to death, when the law of the land was that ecclesial crimes were to be tried in ecclesial courts. The dilemma Becket faces is that the State is attempting to encroach upon the Church, and the king (who connived to bring Becket to the mitre) is taking the baron’s side, with an inevitable conflict to ensue.
Up to this point Becket has tried to play both sides of the fence, being both chancellor and archbishop. He went along with being consecrated archbishop so as to help out the king as someone the latter could trust. But when finally faced with the duties of his office and the choice his is forced to make, he finds a faith kindled he had largely abandoned, and suddenly realizes that the tidy little arrangement he thought he had made with God is no longer something within his control. As he retires from his audience, he feels the overwhelming nature of what lies ahead, and can do nothing but kneel to pray. As he does, he implores God:
My Lord Jesus, I find it difficult to talk to you. What can I say? I, who have turned away from you so often with indifference. I have been a stranger to prayer, undeserving of your friendship and your love…
Please, Lord, teach me now how to serve you with all my heart, to know at last what it really is to love, to adore. So that I may worthily administer your kingdom here upon Earth and find my true honor in observing your divine will. (Becket)
The first time I heard this line, I was struck by how much I felt it often describes me. It is easy enough to intellectually get on board with the concept of prayer, but for myself at least it has always presented a challenge not simply in the execution, but likely more profoundly in the submission aspect.
For much of my life I’ve heard about prayer, studied it, tried various practices of it. And usually the way I’ve heard it presented is as having a conversation with God, which is certainly is. We give thanks for what we have, we acknowledge who God is and praise Him for who he is, we entreat the divine for our needs and ask for grace to avoid sin.
All of these things, of course, are exactly what prayer is constituted by, but if we only stop there it is incomplete. I have found myself running the extremes of prayer, from casual familiarity to suffocating formality, often trying to find the words to say or the mindset to attain.
But yet I too often find myself a stranger to prayer, and like Becket find it difficult to talk to Jesus. I many times notice myself wondering why this is. Do I find prayer too boring? Do I make it too much about myself and what I want?
But I think there might be something a little deeper, and I think I’ve only begun to notice it in recent years as I’ve struggled through disappointment, losses of family members and friends, health concerns and troubles, and all the no-good-awful things that afflict us as part of the human condition.
The interesting thing is that even though we talk about how prayer is talking to God, we are usually far more concerned with the answer, and more importantly if we get the answer we want. God seems to disappoint us a lot, which is why we like to create rationalizations of why X prayer didn’t get answered. They usually break down into three categories, whereby we get God to answer in one way or another:
1. God says yes, and we get what we ask for
2. God says no, and it wasn’t His will
3. God says wait, and the answer will come later
Now, there is no doubt truth in all of these as far as our perception of prayer is concerned. Of course, it’s the No that we struggle with the most, since it far to often means someone has to suffer or someone has to die.
But what can we possibly say in the face of suffering? We want our prayers to be heard, and we fervently pray them, and for all the selfishness and sin wrapped up in our motives there is usually always a spark of faith desperately pleading for God to intervene. St. Augustine describes prayer in tribulation like this:
For in most cases prayer consists more in groaning than in speaking, in tears rather than in words. But He setteth our tears in His sight, and our groaning is not hidden from Him who made all things by the word, and does not need human words….. (St. Augustine, Letter to Proba)
We desperately want God to understand how we feel, and we want His limitless compassion and unfathomable love to break into the situation and fix it, because we are helpless to do so. It is comforting to know that our cries are heard, but within the disease that progresses or the situation that worsens there is always that cloud of doubt and despair, for if God really understand this, why is He saying No?
In my own life I’ve often wondered at this, seeking some of rationality behind the seemingly senseless pain that is experienced, either by myself or by others. There have been many times in my own life where the only prayer I can muster is “Lord, have mercy.” The No weighs heavily upon our hearts, and in an honest assessment of my own faith it is sometimes what makes me a stranger to prayer, because if God knows what’s happening but doesn’t care enough to do anything, what good is it to pray?
I think at bottom one of the greatest difficulties of prayer is the submission part. Jesus teaches us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done….” but we know that too often that will is going to mean something that we don’t like.
And we bristle against this, because it’s in our nature to avoid pain and suffering. Even Jesus’ human nature resisted the coming agony, when in the garden he asked that the cup be taken away from him. To me, the mystery of this exchange is beyond conception: In the hypostatic union the divine and human were joined into one person, and so, as God, Jesus fully and completely understood what God’s will was, for that will was his own. Yet even knowing the “why” of his coming suffering did not remove the sting of the pain, nor alleviate the reluctance to suffering in his body or human soul.
Yet he still prayed, and in his prayer admitted his humanity’s desire but ultimately submitted it to God’s will. In this manner prayer became an exercise both in trusting in the goodness of God, but also a means of submitting his human will to the divine will.
This can, of course, seem a rather glib thing to say when the consequences of that Yes are painful for us to go through, or when God’s will results in our suffering. Sometimes the Yes seems like God might as well have abandoned us. St. Augustine describes this dynamic:
Accordingly, we know not what to pray for as we ought in regard to tribulations, which may do us good or harm; and yet, because they are hard and painful, and against the natural feelings of our weak nature, we pray, with a desire which is common to mankind, that they may be removed from us.
But we ought to exercise such submission to the will of the Lord our God, that if He does not remove those vexations, we do not suppose ourselves to be neglected by Him, but rather, in patient endurance of evil, hope to be made partakers of greater good, for so His strength is perfected in our weakness…
Accordingly, if anything is ordered in a way contrary to our prayer, we ought, patiently bearing the disappointment, and in everything giving thanks to God, to entertain no doubt whatever that it was right that the will of God and not our will should be done. (St. Augustine, Letter to Procla)
The difficulty we face is that more often than not we really do not believe in God’s goodness. We are perfectly happy to recite the trite response of “God is good, all the time; all the time, God is good,” but what we really mean is that God is good when things are good. But when they’re not, we wonder why God is neglecting us, or ask how he could let this thing happen.
But part of submitting our wills to God through prayer is to recognize and really truly believe that God’s goodness is not limited to when we get the things we want or when life is going our way. Instead, God’s goodness is also manifest is our struggles and in our pain and suffering. It can be tempting to drift into the quasi-Manichaenism of imagining that God doesn’t will any of our suffering or our struggles, but our attempts to wash God’s hands of our pain or to bring some sort of sanitized therapeutic to our tribulations restricts God’s goodness only to the things we deem good, to the ways in which we would run the universe.
In the Gospel Jesus talks about how the rain falls on the wicked and good, meaning that God is loving to all that he is made. In this case the rain is a blessing, and an easy one to grasp. However, in the book of Job, Job loses everything he has and witnesses the destruction of his entire life, yet in this moment he proclaims that “the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Sometimes the rain that falls on our lives is a blessing; it seems like the divine Yes to our prayers and it’s easy to conform our wills to God’s when things are good. But sometimes the rain that falls feels a lot less like a blessing and more like a destructive flood, as if we are under the disfavor of the divine No.
Yet Jesus says that God is the one who brings the rain, and so the Yes and the No ultimately reflect the same divine will in an unfathomable way. In either case, both are the outpouring of God’s goodness, irrespective of how we understand it in any particular circumstance.
I certainly don’t pretend to be able to unravel the mystery of suffering or to create some sort of intellectually robust theory of God’s goodness or of God’s will. Since God’s goodness is co-extensive with his being, the only way to understand this mystery would be to be God himself. And as we see in Jesus, even possessing the same being and mind as God does not necessarily preclude our human nature from struggling with submission to his will or even blunt the sting that suffering can bring.
The mystery of prayer and ultimately of God’s No isn’t actually about getting what we want or not, but is really about us bring our wills into conformity with his more and more, and submitting to that will when he brings us to it.
In my own health struggles over the years I have prayed a lot, often with more groaning that speaking as St. Augustine mentions, and I have often felt keenly the sting of disappointment when results come back that are not in alignment with my will. I have prayed with tears for family members and friends struggling for their lives, ultimately to pass on, in which the No can feel like a slap in the face.
And while I still struggle mightily with this, and often still find myself a stranger to prayer, I am beginning to understand that if I am really going to believe in God, and to really trust in his goodness, and to really submit my will to His, then I have to be prepared to accept the No, but also to realize that in some unfathomable and mysterious way that only faith can grab on to- it is really always a Yes.
I will continue to pray fervently for the things that I need and even want, but in the end my prayers always have to be about God’s will, and not my own. It is perhaps in the face of lots of No’s that my will becomes tempered and remolded into one that is more like God’s, for the more I pray the more I am forced to see that what I desire is very often not what God desires.
I don’t know why God brings suffering and sorrow or allows us to face such tremendous loss and heartache. But what I do know is that God’s goodness and love is infinite, and my only hope is to hold on to that like Job, understanding that God gives and takes away and is good no matter what.
I have to believe and hold on to that God brings the rain, whether it is good or bad, and that this is because of His goodness. Like Jesus, I have to plead with God in my prayers, but then accept from His hands whatever he will bring my way. Ultimately, my trust in God’s goodness and love needs to overcome the sorrow that comes or the disappointment life brings or the suffering and loss that seems to inevitable.
And the only way for me to do this is through prayer, and perhaps especially in the prayers that end in No, until I can desire what God desires so as to understand (in as limited and incomplete way as is possible for me) that they are really Yes.
As the movie Becket draws to its conclusion, Becket is in exile at a monastery in France, pondering whether to return to England. As he prays, he admits that the path to holiness is too easy for him there, but is it perhaps God’s way of bringing Becket closer to Him?
Further into the prayer Becket receives his answer:
So… I shall take up the miter again, and the golden cope and the great silver cross, and I shall go back and fight with the weapons it has pleased you to give me. All the rest: Thy will be done. (Becket)
Becket knows that going back means his death, but even in the face of that he is willing to submit. Earlier he had asked to be made worthy of the administration of God’s kingdom on earth, and now he is being placed “like a solitary pawn on the chess board, face to face with the king on the chessboard.” The prayer that he had been such a stranger to, and in which he found it difficult to talk to God, has now for him become the means in which he has drawn closer to God, and will ultimately be united through death. Becket’s will has become molded to become more like God’s, so that like the pawn on the chessboard his movements are not his own, but are at God’s pleasure.
Like the Psalmist in Psalm 27, our prayer has an end, which is union with God:
One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
This is the prayer that always is Yes, as this is the end for which God created us. Every No is ultimately centered around and ordered to this Yes, even though it may not seem like it at the time or ever in this life. St. Augustine appropriately concludes:
The thing referred to is the one true and only happy life, in which, immortal and incorruptible in body and spirit, we may contemplate the joy of the Lord forever. All other things are desired, and are without impropriety prayed for, with a view to this one thing. For whosoever has it shall have all that he wishes, and cannot possibly wish to have anything along with it which would be unbecoming.
For in it is the fountain of life, which we must now thirst for in prayer so long as we live in hope, not yet seeing that which we hope for, trusting under the shadow of His wings before whom are all our desires, that we may be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of His house, and made to drink of the river of His pleasures; because with Him is the fountain of life, and in His light we shall see light, when our desire shall be satisfied with good things, and when there shall be nothing beyond to be sought after with groaning, but all things shall be possessed by us with rejoicing. St. Augustine, Letter to Procla)