At every Sunday Mass, after the Creed, the celebrant leads the congregation in the Prayer of the Faithful. By this point, we have heard God’s word and listened to a homily about it. Now, as a community, we dare to address God directly: "Lord, hear our prayer!"
In these prayers, we ask God for help with the concrete events of our daily lives as we pray for the church, for our nation, for those who are suffering, and for the needs of our own community. We might also include personal prayers for a family member, for deceased loved ones, for ourselves, and so much more.
Jesus assured his disciples that when we agree on our petitions to God, they will be granted (Matthew 18:19). But have you ever wondered why one of your personal "prayers of the faithful" was not granted as requested? Have you questioned whether God was really listening? If you have, then the centuries-old story of the wise man Daniel can speak to you today.
Sagest of the Sages. Most of us know Daniel from his time in the lions’ den, which he exited unharmed (Daniel 6). But there is much more to his life.
Set in the days of the Babylonian Empire (around five centuries before Christ), Daniel’s story begins when he and his companions, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, are brought from Judah to the Babylonian court at the command of King Nebuchadnezzar.
Despite their forced emigration out of Palestine, the four young men continue to observe their Jewish traditions faithfully. God blesses them with knowledge and wisdom beyond their years, and Daniel in particular comes to be revered as a great sage in the Babylonian kingdom (Daniel 1).
This rosy beginning quickly deteriorates, however, when King Nebuchadnezzar experiences tormenting dreams that will allow him no rest until he learns their meaning (Daniel 2:1-3; 4:1-3). His court magicians and sorcerers are ready to propose answers, if only the king will tell them what he dreamed. But Nebuchadnezzar demands that they reveal both the dreams’ contents and their interpretation. As the magicians beg for more information, the king angrily orders the execution of every sage in Babylon.
Hearing this news, Daniel intervenes to assure the king that he can provide an interpretation. Suddenly, the young man finds himself in a life-and-death situation: Either he describes and interprets the dreams, or he dies. At this critical moment, Daniel appeals to God, and we discover in him a model of what it means to utter one of those "prayers of the faithful" that we say each Sunday.
The Meaning of the Mystery. While you and I may not have had to confront the designs of a murderous king, we can all relate to Daniel’s life-threatening crisis. It’s helpful, then, to see what Daniel does and how he prays. Here is what the Bible reports:
Daniel went in and asked the king for more time so that he could tell the king the interpretation. Then Daniel went home and told his companions, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, to seek mercy from the God of heaven about this mystery. . . . Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a night-vision, and Daniel praised the God of heaven. (Daniel 2:16-19)
Before Daniel addresses God, he asks his companions to join him in his prayer. We do much the same thing when the prayers of the faithful are read at Mass. I want my parish community to pray with me; Daniel wants as many voices as possible to cry out to heaven. I want God to hear the entire community implore him with one voice, "Lord, hear our prayer," because, as Jesus said, when two persons agree on a petition, God will grant the request. So before Daniel implores God, he looks to his friends for help and prayerful support.
The content of Daniel’s prayer is very simple. He asks God to reveal the meaning of this mystery that he confronts. His request lies at the heart of every prayer of the faithful: We petition God to reveal to us the mystery of particular events in our daily lives.
This word "mystery" often means an enigma or a puzzle, something that is impossible to figure out. But this is not how Daniel understands it. For him, a mystery describes a set of circumstances whose significance can be revealed only by God. In this particular case, the Babylonian king has had a dream and has demanded to know its interpretation, or Daniel will die. The crisis is indeed a mystery for Daniel, who so recently had enjoyed a prominent status in Babylonian society, so he offers his prayer.
Notice, though, that in his prayer, Daniel does not tell God the answer he expects. He simply begs that he might understand the mystery confronting him. Daniel models the proper disposition for petitioning God: He doesn’t limit God’s response. His openness to God’s will is not easy for us. Sometimes in our own prayer we can stipulate how we think God should answer us. It’s in those moments that we may wonder why God doesn’t give us the answer we are looking for.
Long, Dark Nights. The revelation of the mystery of the king’s dream comes to Daniel the very night he makes his prayer. And so when morning comes, he rises, gives praise to God, and then heads to court, ready to confront the king and his executioners.
For most of us, hearing the answer to our prayers requires more than one night. It certainly took longer than that for Mother Teresa of Calcutta to receive an answer to her petitions. As revealed in her correspondence with her spiritual directors (published in 2007 as Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta), she constantly implored God and waited a long time for a response.
It was on September 10, 1946, during a train trip to the Loreto Convent in Darjeeling, India, that Mother Teresa received God’s call to serve India’s poor. But as we learn in her letter to the Loreto superior general, she wondered why this call came some ten years after she had professed her vows with the Loreto Sisters. She was confronted with the "mystery" of God’s will and, like Daniel, she "prayed and prayed" to understand it. She did not expect, though, that God’s answer would mean she should leave the Loreto Sisters. Mother Teresa’s openness to God’s surprising response is one of the reasons she is on the way to sainthood today.
Mother Teresa wrote that she endured years of darkness and suffering, confessing that her cheerfulness was a cloak to cover her sense of emptiness and misery. During those years her "prayer of the faithful" was simple: "What are you doing, my God, to one so small?" Her prayer, like Daniel’s, captures the essence of our prayers of the faithful. She begged to understand the mystery of God’s will in the concrete details of her life.
The publication of her personal letters can encourage all of us in our petitions to God. Daniel needed a quick response and got it overnight. Mother Teresa probably wanted a quick response too, but she had to wait much longer. When it came, she received it with openness, even though it meant uprooting herself from the Loreto Sisters to begin her work among the poor in Calcutta.
Listen Up! A small community gathers for the 8:30 a.m. Mass here at San Martino in Rome, where I preside each Sunday. Because we know each other well, we know each other’s prayers. There are prayers for a husband, recently deceased after fifty years of marriage; prayers for healing from debilitating illnesses; prayers for a newborn son; and much, much more. Sometimes our prayers of the faithful are specific and personal. But at their root is Daniel’s prayer: Reveal, O Lord, the mystery of your will in our world and in my personal life.
Daniel and his modern-day counterpart, Mother Teresa, teach us how to pray our "prayers of the faithful" more faithfully each Sunday. At this moment during the Mass, we initiate a dialogue with God to seek his help. Then we listen with openness for God’s response, knowing that the answer may not come right away and that it may not be what we expect.
Daniel and Mother Teresa knew God was listening to them, and they were ready to listen to him. Their lives challenge us to do the same.
Fr. Craig E. Morrison is a Carmelite priest on the faculty of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.