There are days that I just want to hide away inside a cloister and pretend that the outside world doesn’t exist. I usually believe in the best in people, but when tragedies such as the ones in San Bernardino and Colorado happen and with threats of ISIS and other acts of terrorism and all the hatred in the world loom all over the news like the perpetually gray December skies, I can completely understand why Thomas Merton chose to go into monastic life.
What makes me even sadder is when the world condemns those who say that they will pray. Has this world become so cynical that the mere idea of prayer has become offensive? I mean when a verse as lovely as Corinthians 13 sets off a “trigger warning,” what good is left in the world?
It calls to mind this scene from an episode of Buffy called “Lie to Me” in which Buffy deals with the fact that an old friend of hers chose to become a vampire in the hopes of escaping the fact that he has brain cancer.
Buffy: Does it ever get easy?
Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everybody lives happily ever after.
Life isn’t easy. It’s messy and complicated and at first glance, prayers may seem like empty promises or a way for politicians to pay lip service to the voters.
But here’s the thing. There is power in prayer. I know this because I’ve experienced it. Prayers aren’t like wishes that magically undo the damages or instantly change the heart of a sinner. Saint Monica can testify that it took a long time for her prayers to finally change Augustine. It took Alessandro Serenelli a long time before he finally repented and admitted that murdering St. Maria Goretti was wrong. Prayers don’t work overnight. The point, however, is that they do work.
It’s easy to believe that the universe is indifferent. It’s easier to try and create our own meaning so that life can be whatever we see it. In the end, though, that kind of existentialist belief is no better than the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who create reality from mere shadows.
I know there are some cynics out there who will say that Christians are really the ones in the cave, creating realities from shadows. Yet look at the lives of people like Mother Teresa, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Pope John Paul II. The saints all had to endure hardships, living in a world that didn’t make any sense. In spite of that, Mother Teresa was able to make life better for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. St. Maximilian Kolbe saved the life of an entire family. Pope John Paul II changed an entire generation of people and continues to do so now.
Prayer changes lives, but never in the way that we expect. It is through prayer that we accept that the world is broken. It is through prayer that we can try and find a way to take what is broken and make things whole again. It is through prayer that we can be a light to the world and maybe change the hearts of others along the way.
God is the one who breaks the prisoners free and leads them out of the caves of their illusions. In this first week of Advent, let us keep hope alive through fervent prayer, especially for those who need God’s mercy the most. Pray for the souls of the people who died in San Bernardino. Pray for the conversion of the shooter as well as for the person who attacked the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. Pray for peace in this world. It may not seem like much, but it’s enough to help restore hope.
I’ll leave you with this poem that I wrote back in April:
Of Monsters and Men
Life is terribly complicated
Sometimes the best of friends
turn out to be people who stab you in the back
The bad guys are not easy to see
because many of these monsters
come in the forms of handsome men
There are battles you can never win
because you can’t stand on your own
There are good days and bad days
and some of them can never be saved.
And sometimes happily ever after
is the farthest thing from your reach.
But somehow, things always turn around
You heal the scars that run down your back
You find some monsters that turn out to be friends
Who help you fight the battles you can’t handle on your own
You look out at the sun as it dawns
and realized that every day starts out fresh and new
even if yesterday couldn’t be saved
And even if you don’t have a happily ever after
You start with what you have now
and find happiness there