Rabbi Lionel Blue tells a story of a Catholic boy, who was worried about an upcoming examination. He told his mother about his worries and she suggested that he ask Jesus for help. He then asked his mother, “But how do I do that?” She replied, “Why don’t you write him a letter?” So the boy sat down and wrote: “Dear Jesus, I am very worried about my coming examination, but if you will help me, I will help my Mum in the house every day for a month.” He then stopped and thought, “…a month is a very long time!” So, he tore up the letter and began again: “Dear Jesus, I need your help with my exam and if you help me I will help the old lady next door with her shopping, every day for a week.” He then stopped and thought, “….but a week is a very long time!” So he tore up that letter also and sat and thought. After a while, he went into his bedroom, where there was a small altar with a statue of Our Lady, he took the statue, wrapped it carefully in a towel and put it in the bottom drawer of his clothes cupboard, then he sat down to write again: “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again….!”
We laugh at that story, but such “coercive” ideas about prayer are not unusual. They are to be found where certain prayer forms are promoted as being more powerful than others – such as chain prayers. They also lie behind the complaint sometimes heard: “Father, my faith is in danger because my prayers are not answered”. The problem is that we tend to think – and are sometimes even taught – that prayer is for invoking the power of God in order to bring about changes we think desirable – in other words, we want to use God’s power to “fix things”. But, such ideas of “God’s power” are a far cry from the image of Christ the King, whose Feast we celebrate today. The Christ proclaimed by Pilate as “King”, stood there in weakness, covered in blood and spittle, with a torn piece of red rag round his shoulders in mockery of a kingly robe. This image reveals Christ’s power to be the complete opposite of power in this world. He does not “fix things” from without, but works gently from within – as Helder Camara once said, “The only power of Christ in this world, is his love in the human heart.”
Moreover, even if we were able to wield the power of God, we do not know what the Will of God is – we can only guess and even then we often get it wrong. Such prayer is always prompted by the demands of our own will, not that of God. I remember begging the Lord, some years ago, to free me from a weakness, which was dragging me down – I prayed, increasingly desperately for help and then I crashed. Later, in prayer, I asked the Lord, “Where were you when I begged and begged for help? Why did you not come?” He answered me, “I came; I was right there beside you, pleading with you to let me in – but you did not want me. You only wanted my power so that you could go on running your life as you chose.” And that was true. Our mistake is that we think that God wants the good as we understand it, whereas he always wants something far deeper – and in my case, he wanted “me” and if that meant that I had to touch the depths of despair before I would be ready to take his hand, then so be it! As a result of that experience, I now have the courage to echo that “So be it!” in other areas of my life as well. He has brought me to know that outside of that partnership of intimate friendship with Christ, good health, good fortune and the other things we pray for have no lasting meaning – but the temptation to put Our Lady’s statue in the bottom drawer still sometimes rears its head!
I am now in the middle of examinations – not that I take them, I give them. My poor students are the ones who sweat and suffer! I give a written assignment, but also an oral exam, but from classwork, I usually have an idea in my head of the mark I will give them, before they come in for the oral, and then as they sit there talking to me, that magic number gradually goes up – or down! But whichever way it goes, I try to make them feel good about themselves.
About this time before Christmas, when I was at Reading, I would tell the people at Mass that I was going to send some money abroad for children, who needed help. I would never ask them for money, nor take a collection, but people would slip something into my hand on the way out of church, whispering that it was for the children. In this way, the Chaplaincy and the parishioners of Our Lady of Peace used to raise an astonishing amount.
Since I left England, I have not done this, but this year I started again. For the last two weeks, at the Sunday Masses I have celebrated, I have mentioned a Mill Hill priest, who needs help. There are, in fact, two whom I will try to help. One is in Indonesia. He and his parishioners were driven out of their homes, four years ago, in the fighting between Christians and Muslims, which occurred there. They have not been able to return. The other is in Pakistan and his people are a tribal people, “untouchables”, who suffer terribly at the hands of “respectable people”. He is trying to build a Christian settlement where they will not be at the mercy of landlords etc. I only mention the need once and I tell the people I am not asking for anything; I am merely telling them what I am going to do at Christmas – send both these men a little money for their people – and like at Reading, an astonishing amount is being slipped to me on the way out of church.