Prayer: magic or mystery?


By Kathy Berken
The Catholic Messenger

What kind of a question is that? Easy. Prayer is not magic. Prayer is about the Mystery of God. Next question.

Wait. Not so fast.

Kathy Berken

Author Anne Lamott wrote a book on prayer in 2012 titled “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I’m adding “Sorry” to that list because contrition is also essential to the spiritual life. That said, I think the most problematic of these four prayer types is the prayer of petition, where we can dangerously cross into the land of magical thinking.


First, prayer is lifting our minds and hearts to God, communicating with God, listening to God. When we offer prayers of thanks, praise, or contrition, they are generally one-way, but when we kneel before God and say “help” or “please,” we expect a response. Recalling the verse “Ask and you shall receive” bolsters our confidence (Matt 7:7). The verse “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (21:22), convinces us that God will do what we ask, regardless.

With that, we might mistakenly see God as a Divine gumball machine. I insert my prayer request and expect to get what I ask for. But what happens when I don’t get what I want? I feel disappointed, frustrated, and even angry. We might start questioning our faith. “Look, God,” we pray, “I’ve been good. I go to Mass, I give money to charity, and I volunteer for good causes. Why aren’t you answering my prayer?!”

Sound familiar? I will admit I’ve heard myself praying like this at times, too.

Expecting God to be at our disposal, seeing God as the Divine gumball machine, puts us in charge of our lives instead of letting that role be God’s. We employ a kind of magical thinking about our spiritual life and veer dangerously close to this definition of magic: “the use of rituals, symbols, actions, gestures, and language with the aim of exploiting supernatural forces” (Wikipedia). The key words are “exploiting supernatural forces.” When I enter my prayer life — attending Mass, wearing blessed objects, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, or reciting prayers — and ask God for an outcome that I think is the best, I enter uncharted territory.

Please hear me out. Mass, kneeling, sacramentals, recitation of prayers, are all excellent ways to accompany our prayer because they can help us experience connection to the Divine Mystery, God. I use all these things, all the time! But when my petitions become problematic, and I start asking “Why isn’t God answering my prayer?” I have to ask myself some tough questions. Do I expect God will do what I ask, regardless? Do I expect what I do and say to influence God’s mind? Who is ultimately in charge of my life?

The old adage that God gives us what we need and not what we want applies here. What I need isn’t always as obvious as what I want. When I ask God for a parking space close to where I want to go, and I end up having to park five blocks away, I’m not happy. Why, God? Well, maybe I needed the exercise. When I pray for more serious things such as healing for loved ones, and the person does not get well, or they die, I find myself feeling lost. My mother died when I was only 24, despite my constant prayers for her to get well. After all these years, I still do not know why she died so young, but I do know that I have often spoken of her goodness to others and found myself trying to fill her shoes in small ways to keep her spirit alive.

Perhaps God’s response to my “Why” might be simply this: “I’m listening. Come let me hold you in my arms.” I pray to have more compassion for those who have also lost their mothers at a young age. That, I believe, is a response to my why-prayer and is part of the great Mystery of God.

(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)

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