Listening for the answer

February 29, 2008

Last month my mother-in-law had a little spiritual crisis. I’ve mentioned before that she has always had a solid, common-sense understanding of God and Christianity. But a series of events last month led to a sort of dark night of the soul. Her real estate business had been slow for a while, and a run of bad luck in January left her with very little income for the month. A lot of the people she knows believe that financial prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing and, indeed, it seems that they have been blessed in that department — they have booming businesses and swelling bank accounts. One acquaintance recently implied that my mother-in-law must not be praying correctly if her business isn’t doing well, and it just about brought her to a breaking point to think that not only is she having trouble paying her bills, but that the situation could indicate that she has somehow fallen out of favor with God.

One night while she was visiting us, she got a phone call about the one deal that she’d thought was a sure thing, that she was counting on to help her get by for the next couple of months. The buyers backed out. The deal had fallen through. It was nobody’s fault, just an unforeseeable fluke.

“What am I doing wrong?!” she cried when she got off the phone. “I tithe, I pray every single day, I love God — so why is he angry with me?!” She wondered aloud about retirement, about the future, if her financial struggles would ever end. She wondered why God hadn’t answered her prayers for financial prosperity as he seemed to have done with so many of her friends. “What am I supposed to think about this?” she asked.

I wanted so desperately to help, but didn’t know what to say. We talked for a little while but I couldn’t come up with any helpful advice. At the time I had just started praying the Liturgy of the Hours, so I asked if she wanted to join me for Vespers. She was too upset. This deal falling through was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and she just couldn’t even pray right now. She turned on the television to take her mind off the situation, and I opened my prayer book to find the right page for the day’s prayers. Not knowing what else to do, I offered the prayer for her, hoping that God would answer her prayer to better understand her current circumstances.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw the heading for the day’s evening prayer: Psalm 49: The emptiness of riches. Before the first excerpt from the Psalm was a line from the New Testament to meditate on while the Psalm is read, Matthew 12:23: “It is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“Listen to this!” I exclaimed, excitedly asking her if she thought this was an answer to her prayers. But she was despondent, saying she just didn’t want to hear it right now. I fidgeted in my seat as I read Psalm 49, which directly talks about money and wealth. “You should really check this out — what are the odds that this would be the reading right now?” I said as I read verse after verse that specifically addressed her situation.

As I continued with the readings, I saw that the prayers for that evening were a treasure trove of wisdom on worldly riches and the Christian life. There was so much food for thought there, it was frustrating to see that she wasn’t listening. I raised my voice a bit when I got to the antiphon for the second part of the Psalm (“Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, says the Lord”) but she didn’t hear.

My point here is not to make a statement about what exactly God might have been trying to tell her there, and I am certainly not criticizing her since she’s certainly light-years ahead of me in her faith. My only takeaway was that, from my perspective, it seemed so clear that God was somehow reaching out to her in the midst of her anguish, that perhaps meditating on these scriptures might very well lead her to a breakthrough, to the comfort she desired. But she couldn’t see it, because she’d turned away.

The story has a happy ending: my mother-in-law reports that she eventually felt better about her situation. It’s really stuck with me, though, to have had the opportunity to see someone as faithful and spiritually mature as mother-in-law miss an opportunity to see what might have been an answered prayer because she’d turned inward in despair. I realized: if someone as naturally devout as she is can do that…I must do it all the time!

I thought of how frustrated an outside observer looking at my own behavior would feel to see me do the exact same thing: when I cry out to God in frustration, do I even attempt to then put myself in a peaceful state so that I might be receptive to any answer he sends my way? No. When I ask for help with a certain situation and look out for God’s answer to my prayer, am I open to any answer that he might give, in any form? Not usually. So often I look out for an answer that fits my requirements, and probably miss answers that don’t look like what I expected them to look like.

Since then, I’ve thought of this lesson any time I’ve been tempted to say that God didn’t answer one of my prayers: did he not answer it, or was I perhaps not really listening?


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