Ireland, so I had heard, was a land of thin places–places so rich in spirituality they were practically gateways to Divine Eternity. In the summer of 2012 I was eager to meet these places. I was in a considerable spiritual funk but had a wicked 3-week trip planned to tour the island, first by myself and later with friends, all to end up in Dublin for a Notre Dame football game. As the weeks of summer passed and brought me closer to my departure, I began to put a considerable amount of pressure on the trip. I kept telling myself, and telling God, that I needed to experience something there–that I needed to find something there. Before long I began to dread the trip and the possibility of spiritual failure.
Today’s Gospel–or rather, a lazy reading of it–allowed this trend of fear and presumption to persist.
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”* I was determined to find the what of my prayer: the experience of grace and the reassurance that would go along with it. I assumed that without it my faith was jeopardized. I assumed that in order to deter a pending crisis I needed something dramatic, something out of the ordinary, and what’s more, something on my terms. It was a goal that I had set, a rubric according to which God had to comply.
Then came the day of the flight. It was a Sunday. I was as tense as ever, nervous for many reasons, not least among them the prospect of my failed spiritual quest. I went to the Mass I always went to. It was presided over by the priest whose homilies I loved to hate. I sat alone, barely knowing anyone. My prayer was frustrated and demanding. But when it came time for Communion all I could do was laugh. I had thought so long and planned so hard to find God on hillsides and cliffs a thousand miles away, forgetting all the while that He would come to me not dramatically, but simply and quietly during a regular, run-on-the-mill Sunday service. I had focused so intently on the what of my prayer, that I had forgotten the who–the Who who was my Creator, Redeemer and closest friend. The laughter led to freedom, and the freedom made for a wonderful trip filled with hills, pubs, and good friends.
A better reading of today’s Gospel does not yield for a recipe for a good summer vacation (although if you’re looking for suggestions, give me a shout), but an invitation to take the substance and pattern of prayer seriously. Jesus does not tell us that we will find what we seek or receive what we’re asking for, or even that the door on which we knock will be the one that is opened. More likely, I hope, the gift and grace of our prayer will not be a what, something objective that we can quantify, but the Holy Spirit of God poured into our hearts, fastening us to the One who loves and lives.
This is why a regular pattern of prayer is so important (be it daily, weekly, or even monthly). It enables us to be persistent and provides us those routine moments in which we are utterly caught off guard. Moreover it takes Christ seriously when he says, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”** Our commitment to a pattern reminds us that the fruits of prayer are not of our design, but are God’s to bestow.
A good friend’s motto for ministry perhaps says it best: “TRUST THE PROCESS.” The life of prayer and virtue cannot be an ad hoc experiment. It is not a tool for personal gain but a way of relating and living with the God who sent His only Son for our salvation. Sometimes it is characterized by moments of joy and times of crisis, but often it is best nurtured in boredom, when God’s presence among us is silent and unassuming. It is then that we learn to ask more boldly, seek more deeply, and knock more loudly, not searching for riches or favors, but for the God who brought us into being and calls into His own eternal life.