The image of Moses waiting patiently upon Mount Sinai to see the “hind parts” of God as the Divine Majesty passed by is a lovely metaphor for how to understand prayer. Skeptics will claim that prayer does nothing; you don’t always get what you pray for, and the best it can do is make you feel good.
Yet I think that view is myopic. We learn to pray over a lifetime, in a manner similar to the way we learn to enter relationships. Just as a child doesn’t always get what she asks for (“candy!” if you’re an eight year-old whose father is writing at this moment), neither does the petitioner immediately get a handy response from the “vending-machine God” (pop in prayer, wait for nifty result).
The United States is the home of American Pragmatism, the philosophical movement of the past 150 years or so that emphasizes the truth value of results (the “cash value” if you will)–something is true if you can point to the evidence. So what about prayer? Does it work?
Yes. What I see in retrospect–looking back over years of my life–is a deepening of my capacity to love. Prayer has challenged me to take a long look at what I desire out of life, and what I am willing to risk for love. Moreover, it has made me much more savvy about the way my feelings work. Following Ignatius’ advice about feelings in the Spiritual Exercises has made me back away from giving too much credence to any particular feeling at any particular time, without seeing it against the backdrop of my deeper desires and discerning its possible origins. Perhaps I feel bad now. Okay, that happens, as much as in any pilgrimage there are rainy days walking uphill. No need to be bothered by that.
Am I still growing as the person God has created me to be? Am I still willing to risk the demands of love? The feelings will follow. That is my faith, and I have seen it work time and again over the years. Prayer works because God is working, and my prayer is that my own work may be a participation in God’s work.