Last Tuesday evening, the night before the final leg of the walking pilgrimage which was being undertaken by a group of American students along the Speyside Way, the weather forecast was unfavourable – to put it mildly. Thunderstorms, torrential rain, hailstones and strong winds hardly make the best conditions for a long trek of 17 miles among the trees and across an exposed hillside. As the group’s local guide I made a couple of frantic phone calls to the group’s leaders, trying to persuade them to put in place some alternative, safer arrangements for the day. Having casualties could spoil their visit to Scotland and hamper their subsequent visits to Rome and Poland. The leaders didn’t buy my suggestion; they were determined to stick to the original plans. It only remained for me to convince myself that the group’s wellbeing was not my personal responsibility – but my sensitive conscience didn’t buy that either. The following morning, with a rather heavy heart, I led the group out of Aberlour after morning Mass. We heard the first roll of thunder about 20 minutes into our walk; the rain followed, and in Craigellachie we were caught in a massive downpour. Heavy rain was on and off the menu for most of the day. That was our experience of the Scottish version of the Sodom and Gomorrah cataclysm.
The group from Denver, Colorado, that I guided for four days, starting at Scalan last Sunday, were mostly students from a Catholic High School run by the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia, the same Order as the nuns in Elgin. There were two nuns in charge, plus a few teachers and parents. They were on their way to the World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland, incidentally visiting Scotland and Rome. They had Mass every day, and they prayed a lot; overall it was a strongly religious trip made by a strongly religious group. Consequently (you might have thought) they deserved every favour from God during their journey, including good weather. Instead, they faced the substantial adversities that a Scottish summer could throw at them: they walked through bogs and marshes, suffered unpleasantly cold winds and horizontal rain, followed by extreme heat which generated thunderstorms. They were only spared Scottish snow and ice – probably just because they didn’t stay long enough. And do you know what? They loved Scotland to bits! Despite all the discomfort and the suffering, they seemingly enjoyed virtually every minute of it.
A common perception of prayer is that it presumes the capacity to change God’s mind or to win his favour for our lives. The haggling with God by Abraham – as described in today’s first reading – seems to confirm such a stereotype; and the gospel apparently follows a similar path. As we know from our own experience, our prayer rarely changes the course of events; God seems to remain unyielding to our pleading. Moreover, sometimes prayer seems to make things worse! It’s not unusual to find families or friends divided over religious stuff. No wonder, then, that many people see praying as a vain and pointless activity; no wonder that many would rather do stuff than waste time on prayers that wouldn’t change anything. This is, however, a massive misunderstanding of what prayer is and does.
When we take the subject of prayer, as described from many angles throughout the entirety of the Bible, we can see that prayer is not designed to form, shape or to change the mind of God. The purpose of prayer is to open our own hearts to God’s presence in our lives; it’s to realise that I’m not on my own, left to my own devices regarding whatever has happened, is happening, or will happen in my life. However paradoxical it may sound, the Americans’ hearts moulded by prayers made even the unpleasant conditions a vital element of their pilgrimage experience; the adversities were to make that experience more intense, more valuable and ultimately positive overall. They prayed while walking through ankle-deep mud and their marrow was dissolving in the rainwater. But you should have seen their eyes: sparkling with excitement and shining with happiness. Strange? Impossible? Not to those who have God in their hearts!