“I keep praying, but God’s not listening.”
This woman was in distress. She lay in her hospital bed, with tubes protruding out of her arms and beeps pulsating the air. She was recovering from one surgery in a series of dozens more.
However, her grief was not just about her recovery: her family back home was unraveling. And amid all this pain, God seemed silent.
It was my first day in the hospital. I had no response. I was shadowing my mentor chaplain to get the lay of the floors. Thankfully, the chaplain didn’t miss a beat, and responded with kindness and compassion. For my part, I realized that I would have much to learn this summer.
A few days later, I took a train down to visit my friends. Their family was celebrating a baptism, and they had invited me along. On the train ride, I opened up my Bible and found myself in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 11.
The disciples ask Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” To this request, Jesus teaches them the Our Father, followed by other sayings on prayer. This passage is so well-known that we easily glaze over Jesus’ teaching. By the words “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish,” I had slipped into scriptural auto-pilot. But with a shock, the last line grabbed my attention. I was expecting the conclusion from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount: “…how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Mt 7:11). But in Luke, Jesus says: “…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Lk 11:13, emphasis added).
When I imagined all the “good things” to ask of God, I hadn’t thought of the Holy Spirit. I remembered the prayer intentions that people share, like the patient I met on my first day. We ask for bodily health, peace in the family, guidance with decisions, comfort in anxiety, etc. These are all good, but they cannot even compare with the goodness of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God, consubstantial with the Father and the Son.
In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus urges the disciples to have confidence in the Father’s generosity. But in Luke, Jesus urges them not just to ask for gifts, but for the Giver himself. And while this is a bolder request, it is also more reliable. When we ask for the “good things” of health, etc., God may or may not grant it, according to what is truly best for us. This seemed to be the frustration of the patient on that first day. Yet when we ask for the Holy Spirit, God happily gives himself.
I reflected on this passage as my train pulled into the station. Soon, my friends greeted me and brought me to the church. At the baptism, I saw just how happily God gives himself. With a ritual of pouring water and pronouncing the baptismal formula, a two-month-old received the gift of the Holy Spirit, forever becoming his temple. Her parents did not have to convince God to give himself. They only had to ask.
In our prayer, what do we ask of God? Perhaps we’re asking too little. Perhaps we’re too focused on our plans, and we’ve forgotten the great things that God wants to do in our lives. Let us seek first the kingdom of God, and let us trust that the rest will be added. Come, Holy Spirit.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., The Holy Spirit