In a famous passage in Georges Bernanos’ novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, the struggling pastor is haunted by recent conversations about prayer.
“How can those . . . who pray little or not at all, dare to speak so frivolously of prayer? . . . Have you ever heard of a man of prayer who said that prayer doesn’t work?” The idea of prayer “working” has an odd sound, even though we all know what it means. Prayer works when we get what we ask for, and otherwise it doesn’t. The priest says that a “man of prayer” doesn’t think that way. There is a difference between making occasional prayer petitions and having a prayer life.
The country priest is not thinking of prayer as a series of requests with answers that may or may not go our way, but as a life of communion with God. This constant attitude of prayer will certainly be punctuated by petitions for the many needs that come constantly into view. There is no true communion with God without a loving concern for the needs of others and a sharing of our own desires. But there has to be a bond of relationship when we make our requests; otherwise, our prayers are like a series of unrelated visits to the Office of Appropriations.
The prayer that is a constant desire for God always works, because God desires communion with us even more than we desire communion with him. God is always saying yes to that request. As we grow in communion, as in any relationship, our trust grows, and we know that whatever comes our way is always within the context of God’s love for us. We ask for many things for others, but not so much for ourselves, because we believe that God wants to give us what is best for us and knows better than we do what that is. An old man in Ireland was asked why he was always smiling and was so happy. “The Father is very fond of me,” was his beautiful response. A proverb says, “God gives the best gifts to those who leave the choice to him.”
The same point about prayer might be made in terms of a fable: A man approached the teacher and complained, “I don’t see what good it does to pray. I never get what I ask for.”
The teacher responded, “Do you ever buy things from a vending machine?”
“Do you always get what you want?”
“Yes, if I punch the right buttons and put in the money.”
“Does the machine always have what you want?”
“So you don’t get anything?”
“No, usually I take something else.”
The teacher went on: “When you speak of prayer, it sounds to me as if you are thinking of God as the Great Vending Machine in the Sky.”
“What do you mean?” the man responded.
“For you, praying is like punching the buttons and putting the money in. You expect the results you bought. There is a difference though.”
“What is that?”
“You don’t know what the machine is offering. You tell the Machine in the Sky what it should have for you, and if it doesn’t, you kick the machine. You don’t take something this machine has if it is different from what you wanted at first. But here is also a similarity between the way you treat a vending machine and the way you treat God.”
“And what is that?”
“A vending machine isn’t really part of your life. You may not even see one for days, and you don’t think of one in the meantime. It’s only when you see a machine that you remember you want something.”
The teacher continued, “That’s the way you’re treating God. God isn’t really a part of your life, someone you live with. You think of God when you go to church, and then the first thought is not about God but about what you want. Unlike a vending machine, God knows all about you and has a personal interest in you. He already knows what you want, but better than that, he knows what is best for you. Did you ever think of asking him simply to give you what is best for you?”
“Well, if you ask for that, watch out.” “Why?”
“You might get it.”
This is a selection from Is God in My Top Ten? Meditations for a Deeper Life in Christ , by Fr. Jerome Kodell, OSB (The Word Among Us Press, 2018), available at www.wau.org/books.