Imagine a child walking through a store with his parents when he sees something he wants. Immediately he asks, “Mommy, can I have that?” Certainly we want that child to feel comfortable enough to ask for what he wants, but sometimes Mom says “no.” At that point the child has several options. He can whine, he can beg, he can try to look sweet and innocent, or he can bargain. And if all else fails, he can pretend that the conversation never happened and then go ask Dad.
We are God’s children, and sometimes we approach Him in the way I described above. We turn to God when there is something we want. Of course He wants us to ask. According to the gospels, Christ told us on several occasions to bring our needs to Him. Petitionary prayer is a very important part of our prayer life. When we are in need, it makes sense to turn first to God. On the other hand, prayer has to be more than just asking. Prayer is a communication that allows us to grow in our love for God. A loving father wants his children to ask when they want something, but he also wants them to respect him when the answer is no.
What made me think of this topic for today is that I found a bunch of litter in church when I came back from my retreat last week. I sometimes find it hard to address such a situation, for the person who left the litter is quite possibly not reading this note. But probably many of you have seen papers which promise a “powerful novena.” The prayers themselves are simple and good, usually beseeching the intercession of Saint Jude. But the promise of the paper is, “You will receive your intention before the 9 days are over, no matter how impossible it may seem.” These novenas usually include the promise that it has “never been known to fail.” The novena also includes the instruction to leave nine copies in church each day for nine consecutive days. (When I was first ordained, people were instructed to leave one copy for nine days. Since then, it seems, Saint Jude bought stock in Xerox.) What I object to, however, is not that these papers pile up and make the church look cluttered. It is that they promote a type of petitionary prayer that invites us to look at God as nothing more than a heavenly vending machine – put in the right prayers in the slot and push the buttons for what you want. That encourages the toddler mentality whereby we hold our breath until we get our own way. Rather, we take Christ Himself as our example. As C. S. Lewis said, “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”
So if you see any “powerful novenas” in our church, please do me a favor and throw them out. But while we are at it, please say a prayer for the person who left them. And as we do so, remember that most difficult line from the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.”