Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When Prayers Go Unanswered

“When My servants ask you about Me, then I am near. I respond to the call of one when he prays to Me. So they should respond to Me and have faith in Me, so that they may be on the right path.”
(al-Baqarah 2:186)

Muslims are taught early on that supplications or personal prayers are to be coupled with all their actions.[1] These prayers are meant as a way to remember God, be closer to Him, and affirm the need for Him in all affairs. However, people might wonder why some of their prayers are answered while others are not. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him] gave the following explanation: “The supplication of the servant will be accepted as long as he does not pray for what includes sin or severing family ties, and as long as he does not become hasty.” He explained that a hasty person says, ‘I prayed and prayed, but I do not see that my prayer is being accepted from me,’ and thus loses interest and abandons his prayers. The prophet further said: “God will grant him one of three things. He will either hasten the response to his prayer, save it for him until the Hereafter, or turn an equivalent amount of evil away from him.'' This definitely reminds me of the notion that we must always trust in God for He is the All-Wise.

Jews often struggle with the idea of personal prayer, since there are prescribed supplications in the liturgy, which implies that there is a correct way to pray.  Many of these ancient prayers relate to the rebuilding of the Temple and coming of the Messiah—supplications that do not appear to have been granted for nearly 2,000 years.  For me, true prayer is about searching my own heart and finding the strength to ask for things that I deeply desire but may never be given.  Each time I pray for the healing of someone who is dying, I struggle to find the right words to pray.  This brings to mind a folk tale, found originally in the Talmud, about a shepherd who does not know the liturgy but desperately wishes to pray to God.  In alternate versions of the story he plays his flute, sings the alphabet and says, “God, if You had sheep, I would take care of them as if they were my own.”[2] Some people mock his prayers and attempt to silence him, but in the end he is always rewarded for offering a true and heartfelt prayer.

Christians too struggle with the question of why some prayers, particularly deep supplications of the heart, seemingly go unanswered.  The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives…”[3] The lives of saints and mystics show that the search is particularly important, for long periods of seemingly unanswered prayer are not empty at all; the search always leads to discovery, always brings the seeker closer to the heart of God. We discover that prayer is about changing us. “Not my will, but thine be done” was the prayer of Jesus in his darkest hour. That supplication shows Christians that when we seek to conform our own will to God’s, darkness becomes light and goodness ultimately prevails.

[1] These prayers are distinct from Salaat, the mandatory act of worship which includes prostration. They are referred to as Duaa.
[2] This version is retold by Eric A. Kimmel in Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Another beautifully told and illustrated rendition is Yussel’s Prayer, by Barbara Cohen.
[3] The Gospel of Matthew 7:7-8

No comments:

Post a Comment