Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 29, 2001
God hears the prayer of helplessness
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day shares how she once prayed at a very low time in her life.
Dorothy Day wasn't raised into the faith, but came to it on her own after a certain romance with atheism. An intellectual, moving in Marxist and anti-Church circles, she entered her twenties convinced that if anyone had the courage to look life square in the eye, she or he would not believe in God.
She had support in that. The love of her life at the time was a man who shared her views. She moved in with him and bore his child outside of marriage. The birth of this child, a daughter, changed her in ways she had not foreseen. Holding her infant daughter, she was so overcome with awe and gratitude that she prayed spontaneously: "For so much joy, I need to thank someone!"
Her faith was born from that, from the purest spring of all, gratitude.
She took some instructions, was baptized and became a Christian. The father of her child, upset by the change in her, warned that if she had their child baptized he would leave her. Her daughter was baptized and he did leave her. Many of her friends reacted similarly.
So, even as she was buoyed-up by her new-found faith, she found herself very much alone, without most of her former friends and support-systems, a single-mother, living on her own, lacking money and without any practical vision of what she should now do with her life.
She floundered like this for awhile, feeling ever more lonely and unsure of herself. One day she couldn't take it any more. She left her young daughter in the care of friends and took a train to Washington, D.C., where she spent the day praying at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Her prayer that day was one of utter helplessness. In essence she said to God: "I've given up a lot for you, and you haven't done anything for me! I'm lost, alone, unsure of what to do, and running out of energy and patience. I need help - need it now, not in some distant future! Help me! Help me now! I can't go on like this!"
When she got back to New York that night and walked up to her apartment, a man was sitting on the steps waiting for her. He told her he had heard about her, had an idea and he needed her help. He then explained to her the concept of The Catholic Worker. The man's name was Peter Maurin and the rest is history. From that moment on, she had a vision for her life.
Not everyone gets so quick and clear an answer in prayer, although more people than you would suspect have similar stories. Martin Luther King, for instance, shares how he once prayed at a low-point in his life:
"One night toward the end of January, I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone rang. An angry voice said, `Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you, before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.' I hung up, but I couldn't sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
"I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.
"In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory:
"`I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.'
"At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him before" (Stride Towards Freedom).
Christina Crawford, commenting on a low-point in her life, says: "Lost is a place too!" She's right. And lost is the place from where we are especially invited to pray. When we hurt all over, live in a shame we can't bear, and are on our knees because we're too weak to stand, we're in the perfect posture for prayer. God hears prayers of helplessness. Lost is a place too.