I used to feel like such a hypocrite when it came to prayers promised. I would tell someone they were “in my prayers” or that “I’ll be praying for you,” but too often good intentions did not guarantee much prayer at all.
More recently, I’ve taken to keeping track of my promises, making a list of people I want to pray for or who I’ve told I’d pray for and reviewing it regularly, if not daily.
This small step, however, has led to another question that maybe you have asked as well: How long do I pray for someone? How long do we pray for that child who has wandered away from the Church or that suffering parent? How long do we pray for that unemployed friend? How long, O Lord, how long?
Two friends told me recently of prayers answered. One told me she prayed a daily rosary for months for her daughter, that she would get married and have a child. Another told me that she and her husband prayed together for years that her son and daughter-in-law would be able to have children.
In both cases, their prayers were finally answered, but more than the miracle of the answered prayer, I was struck by the miracle of their persistence.
Advent is a good time to be thinking about persistence in prayer. Zechariah and Elizabeth, devout but aging, must have prayed for many years for a child. When Elizabeth finally conceived John the Baptist, you can feel her pain for those barren years even as she thanks the Lord who “has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.” (Luke 1:25)
Persistence is a theme of the parables, such as the man who needs three loaves of bread because of late visitors. The neighbor may not give him the bread out of generosity, Jesus says, but “he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.” (Luke 11:8)
Or the parable of the persistent widow who pursues the dishonest judge who neither fears God nor man. Yet he gives in to her entreaties for justice because of her persistence. Jesus concludes, “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7)
In my own life, persistence in prayer is often a challenge. The story of my two friends praying for their children reminds me, however, of how critical such persistence is. There are other stories of people I know, like a former teacher of mine who converted to the faith years earlier. She prayed almost two decades for the conversion of her husband before her prayers were finally answered, unexpectedly and long after she had stopped scheming to make it so.
The saint who should be the patroness of persistent prayer is St. Monica. For 17 years she prayed for the reversion of her wayward son, who we know as St. Augustine. She is a model of Christian virtue, including stubbornness in prayer!
How often we start off with the best of intentions to pray for a dear cause. We tell people we will be praying for them, and we mean to. But distractions arise. New promises are made to pray for others. Life’s cares sweep away our resolve. After Luke tells the story of the persistent widow, he ends with these words of Jesus: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
It is a rather challenging quote, for it links persistence with faith. Do we have the faith to pray persistently?
Remember the Parable of the Sower? The sower spreads his seed on rocky ground, among thorns and on good soil. The seed is the Word of God, but I have thought of it in the context of prayer. We mean to pray, but we lose interest and give up quickly, or we get distracted or anxious. It is only when the seed falls on rich soil, when it is embraced “with a generous and good heart,” that it “bear[s] fruit through perseverance.” (Luke 8:15).
Even here, persistence is the key. It is the marker of faith.
As this Christmas approaches, we are told that the economy is in great shape. Unemployment is down. Profits are up. Yet there is a great unease in our hearts. Many of our brothers and sisters are suffering. Our country seems torn by division. The behavior of so many of us is violent, boorish or selfish.
Today I have found myself praying for our country more than ever before. May it be our Christmas resolve to pray persistently for a change in our hearts first, and then for God’s mercy on this troubled land.
Greg Erlandson is editor in chief of Catholic News Service.