In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples this parable: A widow begs a crooked judge for a just sentence against her adversary. After lots of badgering and nagging, the judge says, “Dang, Lady, I’m tired of you. I’ll send your guy to jail if you leave me alone.” The judge is afraid that if he doesn’t do what’s right for her, she might open a can of TMNT (teenage mutant ninga turtles) on him and get her just sentence anyway. Which is, according to Jesus, a good lesson for us to take down in our spiritual notebooks: “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.” (Luke 18:6-8).
Okay, here’s my problem with that passage, God: all the suffering I see on earth. I know for a fact that many tormented souls have and do cry out to you on a fairly regular basis. If cries of help to you were like cups of coffee at Starbucks, they would have surely earned a free cappuccino on their frequent buyers card. But they are still depressed, ill, crippled, in chronic pain. They nag you, they harass you, they call you on their cell phones in the middle of the night when you are trying to put your children to sleep to tell you about their symptoms. In the morning, they still have them.
I know that you’re not supposed to be a kind of magician in the sky. Because then life would be like a Disney movie: not real and irritatingly happy. But some fairy dust would be welcome on occasion, don’t you think? Iraq? Katrina? Bosnia? The psych units at Johns Hopkins and Laurel Regional Hospital?
You know that I’m persistent. You know that sometimes I approach prayer like I did unloading Thin Mints when I was a Girl Scout:
“Dad, will you buy some?”
“Sure, Honey, just let me read the paper first.”
“Well, can you at least look at the brochure and just tell me what kind you want?”
“Give me the damn brochure.”
“Which kinds, Dad?”
“Do I have to decide right now?”
“Just pick a number and you can change it later.”
“That’ll be $15.95.”
“Okay. I’ll pay you later.”
“Where’s your wallet? I’ll get it for you.”
“Downstairs on my bed table.”
“Thanks, Dad. Nice doing business with you.”
My father—a very savvy business man–told me to go into sales for the same reason Jesus advised his disciples to follow the example of the pestering widow: persistence is the key to getting what you want.
But I hate sales (unless I’m selling my book to an editor). Because I know better. Just because you nag the crap out of a healthcare insurance representative on the phone, and spend 60 hours of paperwork presenting your case–that they did, in fact, say they were going to pay for your hospital stay when you described to the triage nurse in the ER that not only were you suicidal, you couldn’t think about anything other than how, exactly, you were going to kill yourself—doesn’t mean that you get out of paying $8000 to the devil. Because those evil guys are using the same sales tactic—peck, peck, peck. They send out the same exact bill every three weeks until, exhausted by all the back and forth, you pay the damn thing. You just want to move forward into happier times and not think about those days of bonding with the psychotic chicks in paper-thin hospital robes watching “Dirty Dancing” in the community room.
Persistence is key, yes. But I can’t expect to get anything from you, God, because I don’t want to be disappointed when I don’t get it. For that reason, I prefer Thomas Merton’s way of praying:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself . . .
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. . . .
Merton combines persistence with people-pleasing, which, of course, I’ve always excelled at being a true codependent. I want to please everyone, but especially you, God. Doesn’t everyone raised by nuns? Let’s be honest. I’d really like to skip over the cozy fire of hell, if at all possible, the place where you said there would be darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8: 11-12). Because it sounds an awful lot like some of the playgroups that David and I attended … before we were voted off the island.
But let’s say I’ve got persistence and people-pleasing down. You and I still have some major interference hindering our communication because my mind is a bit like Times Square on New Year’s Eve—loud and distracting with those party blowers blasting you in the face wherever you turn. I have a real problem with concentration. It’s gotten much worse with each kid. I couldn’t even compete on a “Special Jeopardy” for those with ADHD.
As you know, here’s how our dialogs sound: “I’m sorry … what was I talking about?” “Which decade am I on?” “Who was I just praying for?” “Is this the last Our Father of my novena?”
Fortunately for me, my patron saint, St. Therese, was also plagued by a short-attention span, intrusive thoughts, and an … um … tendency to fall asleep during prayer. And like me, she worried her conversations with you were one-sided. That is, the warm fuzzies didn’t come visit her as she lit a candle and flapped her holy jaws. You know I’m not making this up. ”Saying the rosary takes it out of me more than any hair-shirt would,” she wrote. ”I do say it so badly! Try as I will to put force on myself, I can’t meditate on the mysteries of the rosary; I just can’t fix my mind on them.” ?
I love what my friend Babs wrote about her struggle with prayer:
When I try to pray, I feel like my mind is the equivalent of an unearthed ant colony rushing in a million directions at once. Quieting my head seems almost impossible. But I do remember hearing that even trying to pray, is in itself, a prayer. Even as I feel myself fleeing the presence of God, a cry for help is flying in my wake—and I do believe that God, who knows all my shortcomings and failures, accepts my miserable attempts with kindness and mercy.
Mother Teresa articulated the same idea, that perhaps you love us in our trying, not necessarily in our success or mastery:
O God, since you are Jesus who suffers, deign to be for me also a Jesus who is patient, indulgent with my faults, who looks only at my intentions, which are to love you and to serve you in the person of each of these children of yours who suffer. Lord, increase my faith. Bless my efforts and my work, now and forever.
So, God, help me to be persistent like that annoying and badgering widow of Luke’s gospel, to be people-pleasing like your disciple Thomas Merton, and to be, like Babs and Mother Teresa, cognizant that I am loved by you for my intentions and efforts more than for my results. Remind me that love is made whole in my imperfections, because as St. Augustine once said, “True, whole prayer is nothing but love.”