Last winter my mum suddenly found out that she would be having two weeks off, so I invited her to come over for a wee break. Obviously with my adopted Scottish soul I didn’t want to pay through the nose for her flights, and I didn’t want to waste my precious time checking every possible airline’s website. So I turned to a single one to do that job for me. Within a couple of minutes it provided a list of flights on the given days, with the cheapest at the top. It was a pity that it turned out my mum couldn’t make it after all.
I come across many people who have either prayed for something over many years, or have pleaded intensely with God for different things at different moments. Common to both groups is an overwhelming sense of disappointment when their prayers seem to remain unanswered. Faced with such an outcome, people question their ability to pray properly, or God’s willingness to give what they ask for, or indeed the very existence of God.
In today’s first reading we’ve heard a passage I personally consider to be one the most reassuring. The word of God is compared to ‘rain and snow […] watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating.’ This presents God’s word as dynamic and effective, able to make a difference in our lives. But God’s active presence is just one of the parties to it. The recipient of God’s word is the other party; and – dare I say – here’s the problem.
In today’s gospel Jesus compares the word of God to the seed cast by the sower, landing in different places, and consequently being either lost or yielding a crop. In this parable the seed is impartial, ready to grow when planted. The conditions on the ground make that either possible or impossible. This parable is about us, the recipients of God’s word.
There are a few misconceptions about prayer, making it seemingly ineffective and unanswered. The first misconception is that we tend to be self-centred, expecting God to provide everything we need to fulfil our plans already in motion. Another one is that the main aspect of prayer involves talking at God; the plenitude of ‘ready-meal’ prayers in the Catholic tradition strengthens this misconception greatly. So we tend to recite these as if it would soften God’s unwilling heart of stone. But the truth is that, if anything needs some cultivation, it’s our hearts.
Prayer is first and foremost an exercise of careful listening to what God is telling me, and not the other way round. It’s the time when my plans, my ideas, priorities, desires, needs and so on are confronted with God’s word and examined in the light of faith. Far from being an attempt to bend God’s will to ours, prayer is exactly the opposite. All this might sound harsh – but only as long as we consider God to be a merciless sovereign, exercising His power and imposing His will. The first step of every prayer is the recognition that God is a merciful Father, ready and happy to provide everything required to make His adopted children’s lives meaningful and fulfilled. With this in mind, we don’t have to twist and turn every single aspect of our lives in order to learn from our mistakes. We can ask God about his plans for our lives, and He will present a list of solutions, with the best one at the top.