“There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” — St. Teresa of Avila
I’ve known that quote for years, but recently as I was prepping a paper on St. John of the Cross I received a new depth of insight into why answered prayer can make us cry. It’s not exactly what Teresa meant when she said it, but it was powerful for me. Dr. Denys Turner gave a lecture last year on prayer in the thought of Aquinas, and touched on this same idea. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:
It’s more evident to me this go around with John that for him the highest “purpose” of prayer is to permit God a free hand to act in creation as Redeemer. More personally stated: God wants to bring about in me a new exodus, rescuing me from the inner enslavement that keeps me from the freedom he wishes for me. When I pray, just as when I receive the Holy Eucharist, I consent — “Amen” — to a new Passover, a new Exodus plundering my inner Egypt.
Why pray? To expose festering wounds to the Surgeon’s skillful care. To expose the darkness to Light. To expose lies to Truth. To expose death to the Author of Life. To expose infidelity to the Faithful One. And so on. Prayer exposes that portion of creation included in our prayer to God. Prayer brings an end to our hiding from God (Gen. 3:10; John 19:26). Prayer for myself, prayer for others. Prayer for the whole of creation to be set free. St. Isaac the Syrian: “For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”
It’s also why you must pray “out of” your sin, your fear, your temptations, your desire to not do God’s will. Your cry must rise out of Egypt (Ex. 3:7-8).
The only time in the Gospels Jesus uses the very intimate Aramaic word, Abba, for his Father is when he is praying out of his darkest trial: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mk. 14:36).
No pious evasion of his terror. He asks to be spared from what he repeatedly told the disciples during his public ministry was his providential destiny (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34; Jn 12:27). That’s absolutely remarkable. Jesus knew the Father was asking him to embrace the shame of the cross. But before he could fully and finally consent, Jesus had to bring that inner revulsion to the Father in a very direct way.
The inner storm of humanity: wanting God’s will to be done, but feeling the extraordinary force of fallen nature chaffing against that will. Then praying “out of” that chaffing, allowing the most violent temptations to be caught up into prayer (Heb. 4:15). Not arguing with them, consenting to them, but turning them over to God (remove this cup) and leaving the battle to him (what thou wilt).
Never attempt to dialogue, reason or argue directly with a temptation. Either reveal it to a trusted other as a confession or speak directly to God about it. Fr. Hopko says regarding overcoming temptation:
“Number one, it can be said very clearly: you can’t do it by willpower. You can’t do it by yourselves. You can’t do it by figuring things out. You don’t have the means to figure anything out, and you don’t have the power to overcome this stuff. In your fallen, corrupted condition, this is stronger than you are. Don’t dialogue with it. Don’t think you can control it. Don’t think you can find some human method by which you’re going to make yourselves intelligent, strong, holy, pure, and beautiful. It ain’t going to happen. Only Christ can conquer and win it.”
I remember many years ago I was sharing with my spiritual director a very dark temptation I was undergoing. I was terribly ashamed of it. I told him I couldn’t even articulate it directly. He said: “You must. When you’re ready, just speak it. Don’t sugar-coat the words.” I said it. He said, “Now, tell it to God.” I prayed my struggle aloud. We sat in silence for a few minutes. Tears flowed. He said: “You’re still here?” I said, “Yes.” He continued, “And God is still here. He hasn’t left you. It’s his battle. Let him have it. See, you allowed him in that place that you had walled off and excluded him from. There he is, right in the middle of that awful place of temptation. It’s not so awful now. Love is there. Light is there. Truth is there. Mercy is there. Pardon is there. The Almighty is there. Of course, he was already there, in that dark place, waiting for you. It’s called Golgotha. Keep your eyes on the cross when you feel its pull again. Don’t look at it, look at him.”
On Golgotha, God entered every human darkness, sin, injustice, despair, failure, pain — Godless places — and filled it all with his saving presence.