“Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said: ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.’” John 17:20
Jesus prays for his disciples. That simple truth is at the heart of our gospel reading from St. John this morning. It is the evening before the Crucifixion, and Jesus knows that suffering and death are imminent. Yet, rather than be consumed with worry over his own painful destiny, Jesus’ concern is instead for his friends, those he loves. He seeks to console and prepare them for his departure from this earth. And so, he gathers his friends into a circle of prayer, and invites them into his own intimate conversation with God, so that they might have a glimpse of the abiding love that He enjoys with the Father. By praying for his disciples at this critical moment in his life, Jesus is reminding us that prayer is at the heart of the Christian life.
One of my favorite stories about prayer dates back to my days as a practicing lawyer. When I was starting my legal career in Washington, DC, in the 1980s, one of the legendary figures of the bar was the late Edward Bennett Williams, Jr. Williams was the most respected trial lawyer of his day. He made his reputation defending the unpopular and the notorious: people like Jimmy Hoffa, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, John Hinckley, Frank Sinatra.
Tough as he was, Williams was also a devout Catholic. Evan Thomas, Williams’ biographer, reports that in the last years of his life, Williams attended Mass every day at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. He would go to the 7 a.m. service and sit in his regular spot in the third pew. He would have his litigation bag by his side, in which he kept his missal, with the language of the mass and the prayers at the ready.
In his biography, Thomas tells the story of Williams’ first meeting with the great Catholic saint, Mother Teresa, in 1986. Evans reports that while Williams was deeply honored to meet Mother Teresa, he was alarmed to hear that the primary purpose of her visit that day was to ask him for money for AIDS relief.
At the time, Williams was a big contributor to Catholic Charities, and he was known especially for his commitment to famine relief throughout the world. But one of Williams’ flaws as a human being was that he could be a bit of a bigot, and, in particular, a homophobe. Williams was reluctant to give money for AIDS relief because he associated the disease with a sexual lifestyle he didn’t approve of.
So, the great trial lawyer found himself in a bit of a bind. According to Thomas’ account, before the meeting, Williams huddled with his long-time friend and partner, Paul Dietrich. “Paul, I’m not sure what to do,” Williams said. “Here I have this great Catholic saint coming to meet me but I really don’t believe that my money should go to AIDS research when I could be giving it instead for famine relief.” They decided upon a strategy: Williams would politely hear Mother Teresa out, but then respectfully decline, saying the firm had decided to direct its charitable monies to another Catholic cause. His hope was that so long as the firm was giving generously to a Catholic charity, Mother Teresa couldn’t possibly object.
So, in walks Mother Teresa, this tiny wisp of a woman, dressed in her simple habit. And there was the towering Williams, behind his enormous mahogany desk, in a thousand-dollar pin-striped suit, with Paul Dietrich at his side.
After telling Mother Teresa how honored he was to meet her, Williams let her present her case for AIDS research. And then, when she was done, Williams politely said: “Thank you, Mother Teresa, I respect your work greatly, but we can’t help in this case because we have decided to direct our charitable giving for famine relief, a cause that I know you are also profoundly committed to.”
Mother Teresa looked at Williams, then at Dietrich, and then closed her eyes, folded her hands, and quietly whispered: “Let us pray silently together for guidance.” Caught off guard, Williams looked at Dietrich, not quite sure what to do, and then like the good Catholic boys they were, they closed their eyes and prayed.
When she was finished praying, Mother Teresa then repeated, word for word, her request for AIDS relief. Sticking to his guns, Williams politely replied: “I hear you, Mother Teresa, but I’m afraid we cannot help you.”
Mother Teresa coolly looked Williams in the eyes, and then, once again, she bowed her head, folded her hands, and said: “Let us pray.”
Williams could see he was trapped by this wise, diminutive nun. Mother Teresa had the stamina and resolve to remain praying in his office as long as need be. He also knew that he dare not and could not kick a beloved saint out of his office. So, after Mother Teresa finished her second prayer, Williams turned to Dietrich, and said: “Paul, I give up. Hand me my checkbook.”
What makes the story apt is not that Mother Teresa got what she wanted, for prayer is not about getting what one wants. The story is apt because it illustrates how persistence in prayer can soften even the hardest of hearts, how it can break down barriers of bias and mistrust, how it can draw us into larger relationships of love that transcend our own feeble perspective. Prayer is about pausing to set aside one’s own agenda, and instead to listen for God’s voice, and then learning to yield to it.
Too many people, I’m afraid, think of prayer as a transaction with God. Yet, prayer is not about making a list of what I want, and then waiting to see if I get it. Prayer is not deal-making with God. The object of prayer is for us to draw closer to God and to each other and to align our hearts with God’s heart in a spirit of unity. That is precisely what Jesus’ own prayer teaches us today.
After all, God does not need us to pray: God knows all about the world’s suffering and pain. And He knows about our own needs and concerns, even before we ask. Nor does God need us to remind him to be just, or loving, or compassionate, or merciful. He has been all those things since before the beginning of the world and always will be.
So, why pray, you might ask? If God is omniscient, and already knows everything we’re going to tell him, why bother to put these things into words? The answer is that we don’t pray to change God; we pray to change ourselves. The point of prayer is to help us to become better and more faithful people, more connected to each other, more open-hearted, more alert to God’s presence in our lives.
When, for example, we develop the habit of naming those things in prayer for which we are thankful, over time we discover that we become more grateful people.
When we make a practice of prayerfully confessing our faults and failures, over time we discover that we become humbler and more forgiving people.
When, in prayer, we set aside time each day to name all those people about whom we are concerned, we gradually discover that by doing so we become less self-absorbed and more alert to the needs of others.
When, in prayer, we take a moment each day to acknowledge our weaknesses and limitations, we soon discover that we become more aware of our dependence upon something, someone, much greater than ourselves.
And when, in prayer, we start paying attention to that still, small voice in our heart, over time we become able to free ourselves from all the distractions of our chaotic world and to listen to what God would have us do with our lives.
Don’t get me wrong. Prayer is not always easy. Our prayers often seem not to be answered in the ways we wish or expect. We pray for health, and the cancer is still there. We pray for guidance, and we still feel befuddled. We pray for peace, and the world is still racked with violence. It is natural and entirely human to feel discouraged in our prayer life when the outcomes we seek don’t come to pass.
But, hard as it is, we need to remember that our time is not God’s time and our ways are not God’s ways. Prayer is not about trying to coax God to intervene or fix our problems. Prayer is about opening ourselves to God’s presence, and asking for the strength and wisdom to accept whatever may happen in our lives, trusting that He will ultimately make all things well, even though it may not be in the ways we expect or on the timetable we wish for. In the words of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Edward Bennett Williams, God rest his soul, was a superb trial lawyer and a quintessential Washington powerbroker. He could outmaneuver any adversary in the courtroom, and he knew how to exert power behind the scenes to get his way. What Williams failed to appreciate, though, is that in the courtroom of heaven power has no currency at all; only love does. As Mother Teresa taught him that day, the only closing argument that has any traction in God’s court is a simple one: “Thy will be done, not mine, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.