In his book Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner (widely known for his bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People) devotes a chapter to the proposition “God does not send the problem; he send us the means to deal with the problem.”
This brought to mind the kind of prayer we often fail to pay adequate attention to: prayer of acceptance.
Prayer of petition is the type of prayer with which we are most familiar. This sort of prayer takes the form of asking God for something. In times of illness, stress or loss, for instance, we ask God to intervene and change the situation.
This is, of course, a venerable type of prayer. It is found all through the Bible and the whole Christian tradition. We appeal to God to lend his almighty power to rectify difficult situations that we and those we love experience.
Yet often God does not seem to answer our prayers; and we can be left disappointed, with weakened faith, and with a nagging suspicion that prayers of petition generally don’t work.
(It is a truism that God always answers prayers in one way or another, and that he works in mysterious ways. But that is for another column.)
Traditionally, Christian faith has encouraged people to offer prayers of abandonment when their petitions don’t seem to work. This is a legitimate form of prayer, but it can leave people shrugging their shoulders – spiritually speaking – and expecting less from God.
I suggest that prayer of faithful acceptance, as Rabbi Kushner implies, needs to be recovered, especially in times of need. If, for instance, a family member or friend is dying, what kind of prayer is appropriate? Certainly, one may call out in prayer of petition for the recovery of the dying person.
But one can also have recourse to prayer of acceptance. In this kind of prayer, one accepts that the person may die – and that God sees the death of the loved one not finally as a tragedy, but full of joy. After all, God brings us through death to the glory of the resurrection.
We are inclined to think, for instance, that the sudden death of a young person is a tragedy. It is, from the human point of view. But from the divine viewpoint, the young person has entered into the joy of God’s providence. What glory the dead person now experiences!
Understandably, funerals have an air of sadness to them. But homilists and speakers at funerals often resort to sentimentality because that seems the only strategy available. Sometimes people lose faith; others resign themselves to a nagging sense of meaninglessness.
This is where prayer of acceptance comes in. We accept God’s wisdom and we recognize that God’s providence is beyond our purview, but that it is more real than any loss we feel. In the Christian viewpoint, there is no such thing as tragedy (Tragic plots in drama or literature do not, by nature, have a happy ending; the Christian story always does).
God does not always directly answer our prayers of petition; he gives us instead the ability to accept what is happening with the surety that glory lies beyond the most terrible human experiences.
To paraphrase Rabbi Kushner, God does not always intervene to resolve terrible experiences; rather, he gives the strength to live through them with profound faith in the indestructible glory of the kingdom of heaven.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.