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ALL IN THE FAMILY

Learning to pray

(First of two parts)

In 1994, when my mother died suddenly without saying goodbye, I would become angry when people tell me, “God has a plan” or “she is in a better place.” But I knew they had good intentions, so I placed the blame on God for “allowing” tragedies to happen to good people.

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Life is unfair. I know that virtuous people are not immune to suffering, even if it often appears that the “masamang damo (bad weed)” thrives in this flawed world. I wanted to rail at God, but I feared blasphemy, so I held fear and resentment inside. Praying soon felt hollow, and I did not go to church for a while.

Until I met with physicist and Jesuit priest Daniel McNamara. As we talked about my thesis, I could no longer contain my grief, and so I lashed out at God, haltingly at first.

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But Fr. Dan said, “God appreciates honesty,” and I sobbed out the anger and confusion. Fr. Dan read from the Book of Job, and by any objective measure, Job had it way much worse, and his entreaties (and even demands) of God resonated with what I dared not say out loud.

In 2009, my father died all too quickly, a month after diagnosis, engendering a familiar panic. But this time, when mathematician and Jesuit priest Bienvenido Nebres entered the funeral house, I collapsed on his shoulder and cried long and hard.

“God can bear your anger,” Fr. Ben said, and true enough, letting out the fury and incredulity made things much better.

In 2018, faced with a health crisis, I asked Fr. Ben to pray for my healing.

“Is it okay for me to pray to God to heal me, too?” I added. “I feel like such a hypocrite, petitioning Him as if he were Santa Claus.”

Read the psalms, Fr. Ben counseled, they are mostly petitionary prayers. Today, when words fail me while communing with God, I would read or sing a psalm or two.

These memories returned as I read the chapter “Everyone Needs Help” in Fr. James Martin’s book, “Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone.” (This chapter alone is worth the price of the whole book.)

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Martin illustrates the ubiquity of prayer in the Bible: Abraham bargained with God to spare Sodom, Moses begged God to spare the Israelites, David implored God for forgiveness, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus prayed in anguish to His Father before His death.

With a dose of humor, Martin includes shocking prayers, such as Psalm 139, which begins with praising God who “knit me together in my mother’s womb,” but ends with “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me.” Psalm 137 sounds worse, as God’s chosen people ask Him to slay their enemies, praying, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

We are advised to take this metaphorically, and never to pray for misfortune to befall anyone, however tempting it is to do so. “Jesus asks us to pray for our enemies, not against them. Such prayers and intentions end up poisoning the heart of the one praying.”

Let us pray for justice instead, and do our part to bring it about.

Asking God for help in prayer is welcomed by God. “[Let us] rebut the common belief that we shouldn’t ask God for help, or that asking for help is childish, or that it is a lesser form of prayer, or that it is wrong … Imagine Jesus telling his disciples to pray for their daily bread, and Peter saying, ‘Really, Lord? Isn’t that a bit childish?’ Jesus might say … ’Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

However, let’s keep our suffering in perspective, and continue to help others.

Today, because of the pandemic, grief for me is a constant companion, but my faith in God (even if I realize that no one can truly fathom His ways) helps as I accompany students, colleagues, friends in their mourning.

So aside from healing for ourselves and loved ones, and storming the heavens for an end to the pandemic (while also doing our part to bring this about), what should we pray for?

(To be concluded next week)

“Learning to Pray” by James Martin, SJ is available at National Book Store.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” via Lazada, or the ebook on Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]

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