Recently, I spent the weekend at a remote retreat center in the Jersey Pine Barrens, where a small convocation was holding its annual meeting. The accommodations were fairly rustic, but hardly anyone grumbled since the weather there was so great. Because the weather is a nice place to start any conversation, I commented on how lovely it was to the center director.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” she said. “You know, I prayed for good weather!”
Now, I laugh pretty easily – I see the humor in an awful lot of things, but I also have a habit of nervous laughter that causes me some trouble, especially if someone mistakes it for mockery, which is actually not a habit of mine. So when I laughed at this marvelous woman’s prayers for good weather, she was surprised that a minister-type such as myself would respond that way. Had I thought she was joking?
“No, really!” she told me. “I prayed for weeks. I did! Because otherwise this weekend would not have been as wonderful as it.”
Her point was certainly well taken. As we start to move through the spring and onto summer, the weekends do have a tendency to be wonderful in proportion to the good weather. Although I strongly suspect that people get much more prayerful in the warmer months, the only real evidence I have to support that suspicion is anecdotal.
The most prayerful person I knew as a child was also the sole person I knew who had a summer house. Coincidence? My widowed great aunt was a kindly soul and unfailingly generous; her summer house was really everyone’s summer house, at least for everyone in her family. Aunt Claire was devoted to family; her clearest expression of this considerable devotion was her energetic and extensive preparations of the summer house at the start of each season. Late each spring, she trimmed her Ragusa rose bushes with ferocity of a medieval penitent.
The first time I saw her wash her scratched and bloodied hands in the kitchen sink, when I was young, I panicked. “What happened?” I gasped.
“Just thorns.” She shrugged. “Those rose bushes are full of them. Full of them,” she said, absent-mindedly turning the soap in her hands.
Aunt Claire had been a hospital nurse for years; it was a job she loved, a job she was ideally suited for, a job she performed heroically, a job she hated to leave. So the sight of blood did not break her stride, and it was certainly not going to keep her from her Ragusa roses. By the way: she purposefully did not wear gloves – they broke the blooms. Jesus had his cross; Aunt Claire had her thorns.
When the weather got cool and the house was closed up, after the bloom was gone from the roses, Aunt Claire practiced her devotion to us in other ways, most obviously by praying the rosary. And what is a rosary but a bouquet of prayers? She prayed the rosary each night, and during a rough patch, during the daytime, too. She mentioned every single family members by name in her petitionary prayers. Unlike some theologians I know, Aunt Claire was not embarrassed by petitionary prayer. The last thing she said to me at the end of practically every phone call was: “I pray for you every night, you know.”
“I know,” I told her. “I know you do. Don’t stop.”
Over the phone line, I could hear her scoff. As if Aunt Claire could be stopped… She would keep asking God for things, without a doubt. She had very specific requests: for me to grow in faith (despite all odds, I did), for her husband to survive the war (he didn’t), for my father to someday recover from his broken heart (it’s not clear he ever did), and so on. God disappointed Aunt Claire – honestly, all of us – a lot, but she was not deterred. Her Honey-Do list was always pretty long, and come summer, it got longer still.
Aunt Claire was quite public in reporting her prayers for good weather, so we could all track their effectiveness, which frankly was mixed. Big parties evoked especially fervent prayers. Because her 85th birthday party was held at the summer house and she was expecting a crowd, she not only prayed for good weather, but she also promised God that she would quit smoking if the weather held. This struck me as an especially sketchy prayer, but the day of the party was sunny and warm, and for that day, Aunt Claire did indeed quit smoking. She did not quit for good until she died at the age of 96.
The one thing Aunt Claire guaranteed me – guaranteed us all repeatedly – was that when she finally died, it would be either in the spring or in the summer, when the weather was mildest, so that the whole family could gather by her graveside in the cemetery overlooking the water of that coastal, windswept New England island. She went on record as having prayed faithfully for years for this one particular thing. So several years ago, when I drove through a bitter blizzard in darkest December for her wake, I couldn’t help but attribute this ironic twist of fate to her broken promise to quit smoking, that conspicuous blemish on her prayer life.
Since then, thankfully, I’ve gotten out of the business of having opinions about anyone’s prayer life, petitionary or otherwise. I even try to avoid having opinions about my own prayer life, if I can. Too often I have prayed for things that I ought not to have prayed for, things I am not the least bit proud of, and almost all these mortifying prayers have involved things on four wheels. ‘Dear God, where is that bus?’ ‘Oh my Lord, could you please send an express train now?’ ‘Sweet Jesus, why won’t they move that car into the breakdown lane already?’ Things like that – desperate, outsized, selfish, wrong-headed prayers… you get the idea.
At long last, I have recused myself from standing in theological judgment of people’s most reflexive prayers, including their seasonal prayers for good weather. The heart wants what the heart wants and our lips are wont to give it words. I’ve given up trying to decide if these sorts of prayers are a bad use for good theology or vice-versa. Despite my being a woman of the cloth, I can neither confirm nor deny any causal link between prayer (sincere, fervent, selfless, repeated, big-hearted) and outcome.
Honestly, I’m just as humble before the mystery as anyone. I’m happy my Aunt Claire had such a beautiful 85th birthday with her family, even if her funeral was miserable. I’m glad I was able to make the drive through the blizzard in one piece and I’m so pleased that she prayed for me every night when she was alive. The director at our retreat center was correct: that weekend in the Jersey Pine Barrens would not have been nearly as wonderful as it was for everyone there if the weather had not held.
So I hope that marvelous woman can forgive my nervous laughter. I never for one instant doubted that she prayed.