Off-handedly, I am not sure how to measure my own prayer experience. Still, I do pray, confessing a “compass in my being” — steadying me with the conviction that Something of Ultimate Significance in the Universe…a Shadowy-Unknowable underlying creation…yet intimately acquainted with me…wills from me a reply. Christianly, I am persuaded by Jesus’ words, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” This persuading, however, has a jeremiad edge, cautioning me against there being a simple connection between my asking and my receiving, between my seeking and my finding, between my knocking and the door being opened to me. Just say that I remain a canny student of prayer, having now degrees in doubting and mumbling. My thoughts are ever agnostically tinged when I reflect on mine and other people’s experiences with prayer. Of this I am convinced…that God seems not to be managed by our expectations.
Some years ago, I was asked, “What were the special experiences in your life which had the most influence upon making you that person you are today?” The answer was to be included in a biographical sketch for an upcoming high school reunion. I wrote that it was at those places in my life where I had experienced disappointment and defeat. I marked out a “desultory time” where my whole experience was watered by my tears, writing about how I had failed my first two attempts at college, though it was deeply embedded in my heart the desire to make something of my life. True… I had no particular goal in mind.
Recollection betrays me here — still, what I recall most deeply about the haphazardness of that time is that one night I prayed. I must have been 19. I had gone to Minneapolis to lick my wounds. I was unsatisfactorily employed. It appeared that I would ever be denied the college degree I so dearly desired. My life was out-of-sync — youthful dream and reality were disconnected. Memory has never let go of how it was. One dreary wintry evening, walking from the bus stop to my room, tears began to fill my eyes. My room was in an Edward Hopper-like bleak boarding house common to the 1940s. Entering my room, I went to my bed, fell on my knees…my tears melding into the deepest prayer that 19-year-old lad might muster, “Lord, I have messed up my life! Help me!” — my exact words.
Thinking back, it appears that God answered my prayers — even my earlier prayers, but in ways that forced me to grow in directions I could never have envisioned. My life’s story didn’t follow the script I was trying to track — the one written by my early dreams. Life for me became a much larger and more fulfilling story. You see…in the beginning I had come to my life too timidly, having little sense of the wonder of what it was to have these brief years to spend…this being at one with the earth only once. Today, remembering how it was, I am encouraged to own what Hamlet affirmed to Horatio, “…there’s a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”
It was God’s refusal to honor my earlier expectations that forced me into becoming much more than I thought I could ever be. What I note is that over and over again God’s actions on my behalf have inevitably become occasions of surprise — even apart from my praying. I am overwhelmed at the way life has happened to me. Martin Luther once noted that God sometimes answers our prayers by refusing them. Reflectively, I realize that had my prayers of an earlier time been answered in accordance with my asking, my life would have proven too small. As it is, astonishingly I have come to a place in my life never envisioned by that youthful self. Seeing how my life has turned out, I say as the Psalmist wrote somewhere, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. I have a goodly heritage.”
In spite of the stinginess of my conviction, I believe God is busy in my life. Still, it’s a strange kind of busyness…and seems to happen while my back is turned. Nowhere can I put my finger down and say, “There God was busy on my behalf.” What I do know, however, is that the pain and joy, the doubts and certainties, the failures and successes of the years have entwined in such a manner as not to disappoint. It could have been otherwise. For multitudes it is and has been otherwise. It is for this reason that I refuse to wax dogmatic about prayer. That other people’s experience with prayer is different than mine, bringing them to a different place, is nothing I can explain.
What I think is that life engenders thanksgiving for both the mystery of what is given and what is enigmatically withheld from us. I am not blind to the fact that insecurity seems the default condition for all planetary life. Though I am not privy to God’s ways with us, I shall live as if God takes note of our doings. Committing to God what I am and will be, I bow to the fact that the world is what it is. It may not always seem a safe world; however, it is I believe the best kind of world for becoming!
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened.”
The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation at the First Parish Church in Saco.