Three priests were discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone engineer worked nearby. ‘Kneeling is definitely best’ claimed one. ‘No’ disagreed another. ‘I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to heaven.’ ‘You’re both wrong’ the third insisted. ‘The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.’ The engineer could contain himself no longer. ‘Hey, guys’ he interrupted, ‘the best praying I ever did when I was hanging upside down from a telegraph pole.’

I imagine that the blind man in today’s gospel must be experiencing similarly desperate feelings. He keeps on and on calling out to Jesus despite the people around him telling him to shut up. In fact, the more they insist on his silence, the louder he shouts. He has good reasons to grasp such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He’s fed up after spending all those years by the busy road, a road always full of people chasing their dreams, while he has been sitting and begging for scraps of attention from the passers-by and spare coppers from their pockets. Quite likely he overheard some people talking about this man Jesus and he wished to meet the guy. But there wasn’t anybody willing to help him. People were either too busy or too unsympathetic to respond to the blind man’s request. So he must do whatever it takes, or such an opportunity will slip beyond his grasp. His appeal to Jesus – or let’s call it his prayer – isn’t a matter of piety or of devotion, but it’s a matter of life. Perhaps because the man’s cry is so genuine and authentic, Jesus calls for him to come close. That’s a bit strange; how much easier it would be to accomplish the other way round, for Jesus to go to him. However, this sparks a sudden change of heart in the crowd. The same people who have just tried to silence the blind man are now bolstering his courage, and perhaps even leading him to Jesus. In Poland we have a saying about this kind of attitude: ‘many claim the fatherhood of the success while the failure is orphaned.’

The blind man is determined to draw Jesus’ attention by crying out. But he’s similarly keen to take the necessary actions when called by Jesus: he throws off his cloak and jumps to his feet without any hesitation. He’s not only a man of prayer, but a man of action too. He’s so elated by Jesus’ call that he actually leaves behind his most precious possession: his cloak. Somehow that leaves him totally exposed to Jesus: he’s still blind – and now he has nothing and nobody else to rely on but only Jesus. After his wish has finally been granted, he follows Jesus faithfully.

This whole story can teach us a bit about the correlation between prayer and action. Many people seem to opt for the latter, as they perceive prayer as a pointless activity and a sheer waste of time. But I think the problem lies in some rather common misconceptions about prayer. One is that prayer is a sort of lip-service paid to God; a set of repetitive rhymes, recited quite often at great speed without paying much attention to the content. Another misconception, far more serious, is that prayer is a way of persuading God to execute the plans that we ourselves have hatched. When I worked in schools, I witnessed a massive increase in this approach among students as they were about to sit their exams; the worse their preparation had been, the greater their piety in the days and hours preceding the exams. Most of the time this approach resulted in failed exams (obviously) and disappointment with God.

I regard prayer as the way of listening to God and to learning what his plans for my life are, then as the way of accepting them as the best plans for my life, followed by acting on them. Most of the time God’s plans for me have been about challenging my selfishness and my self-interest. Prayer has always been the means to bend my will to execute God’s ideas in my life. And I can say that the only source of disappointment I have ever had was when I decided to do something my way – and failed.

Wee Jack had been misbehaving and was sent to his room. After a while he emerged and informed his mother that he had thought it over and then said a prayer. ‘Fine’ said the pleased mother. ‘If you ask God to help you not misbehave, He will help you.’ ‘Oh, I didn’t ask Him to help me not to misbehave’ said Jack. ‘I asked Him to help you to put up with me.’