Last summer, I was tempted to give up on praying to God.

Up to that point, my life felt like a Looney Tunes cartoon and I was Bugs Bunny trying to escape a haunted house full of closed doors that just led to more closed doors. Every attempt at finding employment was met with rejection and no matter how many novenas I prayed to get work, God just held up a sign that said, “Wrong way.”

I thought, “Why bother praying when God does what he thinks is best anyway?”

This question always floats to the forefront of my mind when my prayers seem to fall upon deaf ears. But haven’t many of us secretly wondered this? We’re told to pray unceasingly, but do our prayers have any real sway? In one breath we’re told, “Ask and ye shall receive” and “Surrender to divine providence.”

If a family member gets horribly sick but then they get better, it’s because God listened to your prayers. If a family member gets sick and dies even though you prayed, it was God’s will.

So which one is it? Do our prayers really “work”?

A couple months ago, the priest at Mass gave a homily on the Wedding at Cana. It was one of those homilies where your ears perk up and you can almost hear God say, “This one’s for you, kid.”

In the homily the priest addressed the topic of whether prayer requests can cause God to change His mind. In this scene of Christ’s first public miracle, Mary says to her son, “They have no wine” (John 2: 3). In reply, Jesus says, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come’” (John 2:4). Yet, He changes the water into wine. The priest explained that Jesus initially had no intention of changing the water into wine, but because His mother suggested it — he changed his mind. All of this was to remind the congregation that prayer does have impact. The priest said in conclusion, “It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want to change the water into wine, He’s just waiting for you to fill the jugs with prayer.” The idea of God changing His mind was surprising to me.

Since I’m prone to regular “Why, God, why?” moments, I figured I should just get this all sorted out once and for all. So one morning I shuffled off to speak with our local priest and family friend. As we sat in our empty parish church with the crucifix towering overhead, he said to me, “It’s very difficult to talk about the mind of God. We only have our perception of that which He’s revealed to us.” He continued to say that God definitely never changes His mind about the commandments. I’m no theologian but I figured as much — I’m also not really looking for a green light on murder.

But he went on to say, “As humans, we’re looking for a linear pattern, a cause and effect that we can comprehend. We’re looking for a “take this next step” instruction when we pray. We can’t help but think in two dimensions. But when we’re talking about the mind of God, we’re not talking about two dimensions — we’re talking about all dimensions being sustained at once in His will alone.” So when we’re praying for certain things, we expect an answer in the way we can understand, i.e., “do this, not this.” However, because we have free will, we can choose many different paths and God works with us, no matter what path we take.

Father continued, “His gaze penetrates all that maze of choices and options we make. Does He change His mind? Well, He allows us to change ours.” This is about when I started to see through my own maze.

The pew creaked as Father leaned back, “Prayer is a conversation. If you’re in a conversation with someone and you’re thinking of how you can manipulate someone’s response, well, that’s not really a conversation — it’s a script.” His voice echoed, bouncing off the empty pews and then back to me. I thought of all the times I presented God with a manuscript of exactly how the story of my life was going to go.

“It’s hard for us not to approach prayer like that. We all do it. But God still works with us. At a certain early level in prayer, the switch is either off or on — we either feel totally in sync with God because we’re getting what we want or we’re high and dry because we’re not getting what we want.”

Bingo.

I realized I had been looking at the Wedding at Cana all wrong. I was focusing too much on Jesus changing his mind and not enough on Mary’s role in the whole scene. Perhaps one of the most important words to come out of this entire passage is Mary’s, “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). This is directed towards the servants at the wedding, but her words resonate to all children of God, especially since she is the Mother of the Church. She tells us to do whatever her Son tells us to. These words also reflect her fiat at the Annunciation; a complete surrendering of her will and she encourages us to do the same at the Wedding.

Mary and Jesus’ entire exchange in John 2 is an example of healthy prayer. When Mary sees they’ve run out of wine, she recognizes the bride and bridegroom’s need and presents it to her Son. She didn’t seek to control or manipulate Him to get her desired outcome. She was never seeking to change His mind. She simply made a suggestion and invites from Him the response of His providential love to pour forth in that moment. She was open to His will, regardless of the outcome.

Father folded has hands and continued, “When asking God, ‘can I please have this?’ we should exhibit the same trust of Jesus at Gethsemane when he said ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it’” (Matthew 26:39). Christ’s complete trust on the cross is certainly a sobering wakeup call after you’ve been moping around because of not getting a job.

“Like the sun’s rays or a rainfall after a drought, mercy and grace is pouring on us,” Father said, “but we block it when we get so caught up with trying to change God’s will. We’re not open to graces at that point. But when we pray and surrender to God’s will, we’re open to His love and in that openness, grace is able to come into our lives.”

For so long, I viewed life as a battle of the wills. My will vs. God’s. I always felt like I was at unfair disadvantage because, well, God is God. This perspective warped my mind into believing the whole purpose of my life is to be bossed around by God. I gritted my teeth whenever I said I was open to His will while simultaneously praying against it.

But in this life, we’re hardly forced into anything. We’re actually allowed to make any decision we want in life, even if it’s not what’s best for us. But God doesn’t watch us like rats in a maze, desperately searching for happiness like cheese. When we start going down one path, He offers us opportunity after opportunity to find Him again. Sometimes that opportunity means personal growth through redemptive suffering.

Like all sin, it boils down to pride and the belief that we know what’s best for us. We see ourselves as personal gods and in our limited two dimensional view, we aren’t able to see what is truly best for us or the reason behind the crosses we’re given for our salvation. God’s greatest creation is that good can come from bad, but it’s always our choice to choose the good. When we stop trying to change God, we surrender and allow for real graces to make real change in our lives.

Like Mary, when we present our desires or needs before God, we should have already surrendered and accepted his will regardless of the answer. It’s when we’re in this state of grace that we’re able to ask the right questions and able to receive God’s answer.  

As I thanked Father for talking and genuflected a bit longer than usual before the tabernacle, I looked up again at the crucifix that hung high above me. I took one more glance back as I left the church with a Padre Pio quote (from a July 14, 1914, letter to Raffaelina Cerase) running through my mind:

Tribulations, crosses, have always been the inheritance and portion of elect souls. To the extent that Jesus wants to raise a soul to perfection, he then increases the cross of tribulations. Rejoice, I tell you, to see yourself so privileged despite your lack of merit. The more you are afflicted, the more you should exult, because a soul in the fire of tribulation will become refined gold, worthy to shine in the kingdom of heaven.