PRAYER — An Essay of Doubt and Question
I REMEMBER AS IF IT WERE YESTERDAY, kneeling, my arms resting on the pew in front of me, hands folded, silently talking to God, asking–praying–for something. The intensity of my prayers grew as I matured from a child, to becoming an altar boy, and on to a college student walking into the Catholic Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as a freshman at Marquette University.
I was raised Catholic, never questioned faith, and believed what I was told I should believe in–I simply accepted all on faith as “God’s truth”. The nuns and priests in grade school and high school were always right, always to be respected, never to be questioned. As well, every man-of-God, whether a priest or monsignor, was to be honored without question. They sat atop a pedestal for all to adore.
When an old priest’s hand reached my crotch as I drove him to a relative’s home, I could not comprehend what was happening. At sixteen years old, I had never heard the word pedophile, let alone understood what it meant. I was so persuaded (or brainwashed) that a man-of-God was without fault, that what was indeed happening did not compute in my innocent and ignorant mind. As his hand searched for its coveted prize I was shocked, totally confused, and in chaos. I was not brainwashed enough to believe it was okay for him to be groping at my pants, but I was indoctrinated enough to put it out of my mind simply because I couldn’t figure it out. It was a huge contradiction: he was a man-of-God, and they do no wrong, right? Yet feeling for my penis is wrong, right?
I didn’t allow him success, endured attempt after attempt by lifting his creepy hand off of me, but only days later I had tossed it completely out of my mind. That was the only answer. Not once did I ask myself what would have happened had I allowed him to reach his goal—I erased it completely as if it had never happened.
It was a Marquette University, when I first ask the question about prayer: “Does God listen?” How many times had I knelt in prayer never questioning if God was listening? How many times had I knelt at my bedside and finished the day with a prayer? How many times had I asked God to forgive me of my sins in the confessional telling them to a man-of-God? And how many times in prayer had I asked for something and not once questioned not receiving it? Yet here I was at a Jesuit College asking if God hears our prayers, and if so, does he care.
Then, out of nowhere—or perhaps straight out of hell—on an otherwise quiet day, studying in my dorm room, a sick man aimed his rifle out the window of an old library building at an innocent man a long way off in a moving convertible, pulled the trigger, and the bullet struck John Kennedy in the head.
I close my eyes today and I can see as clearly as the day it happened, my desk, the bunk beds, the windows, and I can hear a fellow student from another room burst open my door and say in panic, “President Kennedy has been shot.”
Without a word, I turned on the radio and heard the announcer describe the scene of the president’s car heading for the hospital, John Kennedy slumped over in his wife’s arms, and saying he was shot in the back of his head.
I stood as the other student left my room as quickly as he barged in. I was pale with shock, chills encompassed me, my heartbeat increased and tears welled in my eyes. The announcer said something to the effect that it didn’t look good, in fact, it looked horrible, and he was unsure if the president was alive or dead. I looked at one of the large speakers of my stereo sitting on the floor; it was telling me this horrid news. I threw my leg back and let go a kick to the speaker, as if I could change what I had heard if I just struck it hard enough. I heard the announcement again, and tears poured down my face.
I left my room and headed down the hallway and stairs with numerous other students heading out of the dorm, the only words being said were variations of, “Oh my God, it can’t be, this can’t be happening.” Everyone was heading for the church, including me.
Dozens of students were moving up the front steps of the church, silent, many crying, no one embarrassed about their tears. My face was wet, my vision blurred as I entered the huge church. It was full. It seemed every inch of the back of every seat in the church was occupied with a student kneeling against it, hands folded in front of them, faces lying on their arms or in their hands, many crying aloud, others silently crying. I found a pew, knelt, buried my face in my hands, and felt my heart beating in my chest, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, tears filling my palms.
I made the sign of the cross on my chest, and then began asking God to please save this precious man. A priest walked to the altar, altar boys knelt, and an unscheduled Mass began. Midway through, the priest looked out at the church full of students lost in depression and went to the lectern. In a serious and sad voice he said, “Let us pray. Let us all pray that our President John F. Kennedy survives.” He went on to lead us all in prayer. Around the nation, churches were full of praying mortals, Catholic and non-Catholic asking God to save this deserving man.
But he didn’t. The following day we all found ourselves back in church, this time the priest said we must pray for President Kennedy and his family. My first thought was, why? He’s dead for Christ’s sake, dead. He’s frigging dead. Exactly what are we praying for? God never heard any of our thousands of prayers or if he did, he didn’t give a shit. What the hell are we praying for now?”
I looked up at the priest, this man-of-God, telling us to pray for our dead president. It hit me hard; everything I had ever been told about prayer was crap. All those times I prayed for something, I was merely talking to the air. Either God didn’t exist, or he simply didn’t care. With a mere thought, could not God have readjusted the rifle site, or cause the rifle barrel to move slightly as the finger of the devil pulled the trigger, thus missing Kennedy’s head by a mere hair? But he didn’t. He went ahead and let the damn lead bullet blow a hole in Kennedy’s head. I moved from my knees to sit on the pew thinking, why pray when all I was doing was trying to convince myself that God was listening and cared? Why beg him for something when he doesn’t give a hoot. Why pretend with these things called prayer and faith?
I looked up at the priest, dictating what we all should do, how we should feel, telling us as if he were God. I saw a man, not a god. A mere mortal thinking he knew all, and we knew nothing, because he wore a collar. It was at that moment I lost my faith in prayer and in God. I had often wondered why a great and all good God would allow an innocent child to be killed by a drunk driver when he could have had the drunk strike a telephone pole. I had often wondered how many must pray for something to purchase God’s intervention. If a mother prayed for her infant daughter to survive the crash and it wasn’t enough, what about if a church full of people prayed for her? Would God then save her? If that wasn’t enough, what about if a whole nation prayed for Kennedy to survive the shot that hit him in the head, wasn’t that enough? Just how many prayers does it take to buy God’s care? I thought God was always loving and caring and totally compassionate.
I stood up and left the church angry at God. I came to a solid conclusion by the time I reached my dorm room–if indeed God did exist, he cared nothing about prayer. Prayer simply was a waste of time, and I was self-embarrassed thinking about all the times I had prayed so hard. If he wouldn’t listen to a nation full of churches, full of people, praying for President Kennedy, he sure as hell wouldn’t listen to little insignificant me praying to pass an English exam now would he. I shook my head thinking, how dumb I had been, how very stupid I was to believe for so long.
For the next many decades nothing changed, except a more solid belief in the fallacy of prayer, as confirmed by the number horrid events that had taken place, and the number of corresponding prayers going unanswered. How easy would it have been to have those two planes just miss the twin towers and crash instead into the river, it would have only killed two planes full of innocent people. Or just maybe he could have alerted airport security by revealing something to them and even saved those poor folks. Perhaps if sudden heavy rains had put out the devastating fires in the west to save thousands of homes, or a long gentle rain had saved the farmers in the Midwest from economic disaster, or if the brutal murderous dictator of a Mideast nation had succumbed to a sudden heart attack (or been successfully assassinated) thus freeing the nation’s people and preventing thousands of innocent men, women, and children from being brutally murdered, just maybe I would reconsider my conclusions on the value of prayer. But none of those things happened, yet hundreds of thousands of prayers were made to God to lend a compassionate hand to change things—to no avail.
It occurred to me that if indeed God would answer prayers, or had answered prayers, it would have to mean that God makes choices; for it’s obvious he doesn’t answer all prayers. So, if God does intercede, what criterion does he use? This alone would make no sense whatsoever, for it would mean God wills some to suffer and die (when he could prevent it) while others he decides to save from suffering and death. God does miracles, right? Well, by what criteria does he use to decide when a miracle is warranted? Wouldn’t this be horribly petty of God—saving one innocent baby, and allowing another to suffer and die. Both are infants, both deserving of a beautiful life; no God would be so petty as to save one child and not the other—how could he? If he parted the sea to allow passage and save a bunch of believers, and produced hundreds of loaves of bread and fish to feed them, a true miracle, why not have a miracle to save the twin towers? Why the hell not? And why in the world would he not perform a miracle and save all the Jews from the gas chamber?If he could part the sea, why couldn’t he have prevented my father’s death at least until I had a couple of memories of him? Why not at least give me that? What is his criterion for helping-out or miracle making?
Prayer then is not for the benefit of what is being prayed for, it’s merely for the person praying. Praying makes one feel better. If you have no other way to help, you can pray, and doing so makes one feel good. Thus, prayer, is at least doing something.
As I reflect back to those many times I knelt in prayer feeling as though I were in communication with God, I find myself wishing I still had my faith. For those with faith always have prayer to console them. They can speak to God believing he is listening and caring, even though he never does.
I don’t have that outlet. And just maybe that alone is a good reason to have faith, and a good reason to pray; to feel better, in the midst of chaos.
I’m left with only the chaos.