How many times have we met with dear friends who are distraught about a family member, perhaps a child who has left the faith or a family crisis hinging on poor decisions? After looking at the details, exploring the possible harms, and coming to grips with what is at stake, the conversation usually ends with a single comment: “Ah well, all we can do is pray.” I’ve said it myself, and heard it repeatedly — usually accompanied by a deep sigh of resignation, indicating both faith and a sense of helplessness.
Although there is never any harm meant by this line, I think we have to look at it more carefully to see what we really mean when we say it. Over the years, I admit that my approach to it has been purified — in principle because I have been gratified to see the power of prayer and the sheer ineffectiveness of operating without it. The key to understanding prayer is knowing how it is linked to our mundane actions, and how grace will enlighten those for whom we intercede.
If you take the case of a loved one who lacks faith, it is entirely fitting that the Christian — who knows God and His desire to be known — try to show that God exists. This can be done in a number of ways: personal witness, showing how natural law fits with Divine commands, by sharing books and other resources, and through prayer. Most of us have worked hard to find just the right books, to expose the person to just the right testimony, or have struggled with just the right argument that will clinch the case — often to no avail. It can be mystifying!
Sometimes, we will realize that we’ve pressed too hard, jeopardizing the relationship or making others fret over our singularity of purpose. It’s not that we don’t value harmony in the wider circle, but that we prioritize souls and know the risk — here and beyond — of living as though God doesn’t exist. We want everyone to know the tranquility of soul that derives from God’s good order.
I think we’ve all been astonished to hear of the great effects in the lives of others when they heard a moving sermon, read a particular book, or encountered just the right prayer card, but we must remember that the life-changing moment was the culmination of mountains of prayer and sacrifice — linked inextricably to the salvific work of Jesus Christ at Calvary. He did the work; He offered the only thing of merit.
Remember also, that the one preaching the sermon, the one writing the book, and the one who published the prayer were all inspired by the same Spirit — which was unleashed through prayer and sacrifice. It was Christ’s priestly prayer and the spilling of His Blood that brought about the Pentecost that we have remembered once again in our liturgical year.
We should never feel as though we’re reduced to prayer, for we begin with prayer — and persevere in prayer, which should guide our actions. It’s not our last resort but our launching point. Many a good argument has passed over deaf ears, just as many have seen miracles without distinguishing the hand of God. Comprehension takes grace — ours did, those evangelizing today are there because of their transformation in grace, and the conversions we so ardently seek will accrue from grace as well.
We need to be careful about this phrase then, as we sigh over “all we can do.” The word “all” is key — since anything that flows from it is entirely secondary. Ultimately, prayer is all.
[The Anchor 6.01.12]