I’m in South Carolina mountain country as I write this, visiting my dad and grandmother with B. We lounged around the breakfast table this morning long past the end of the meal, sharing the kind of conversation normal to my family – digging up old family stories, gossiping about old and new friends, complaining about government and religion, and philosophizing about the difficulties of finding a good plumber.
At some point my grandmother confessed that she’s very angry with G-d for not answering her prayers, and that she’s about ready to throw in the towel on the whole G-d idea and become an atheist because she can’t think of a single thing G-d’s done for her in her whole life.
The Christian marketer/manipulator in me wanted to object to this, insist that G-d is always good and generous and make her look until she discovered things she was grateful for.
I refrained. I didn’t argue with her. I didn’t even speak. My grandmother is 85 years old, has seen grief that would make my hair fall out, and has every right to her own evaluation of her experience.
Then she turned and asked me if I pray.
Then she asked me if G-d answers my prayers.
And I found that I was at a loss for words.
How do you answer a question like that? The knee-jerk evangelical answer to that is “of course.” And G-d does. Of course.
But how could I just give a casual “yes” to my grandma, for whom G-d did not send relief to her only daughter in the agony leading up to a slow and painful death? For whom G-d sent precious little relief when she nearly starved to death in England during WWII? For whom G-d seemed absent when she felt trapped and imprisoned in her marriage, in her religion, in America?
What the hell kind of prayers have I had to say that could even begin to speak to my grandmother’s question? “Why, yes, just two weeks ago I begged G-d to grant me success during an important day at work, and G-d did”? That’s self-serving, insulting, and smug, and smacks pretty strongly of “Maybe G-d just loves me more than you.”
Or, perhaps an answer about how G-d answers prayers, but not usually in the way we expect?
In another recent example – just last week I was feeling confused about my romantic relationship and asked G-d for confirmation that I was still on the right path, with the right person, that G-d is still present in this relationship.
I had in mind a particularly deep conversation, a vision, a dream, a magically good time, something like that. Something easy.
Instead, in true G-d fashion, S/He struck me down (while we were camping/road tripping) with some serious digestive distress. It wasn’t pretty.
But it occurred to me this morning that I had the experience of being patiently cared for by B for three days straight without grumble or complaint (have I mentioned my boyfriend is AWESOME?). Not the vehicle I would have chosen for romantic re-commitment, but coming out of it, I felt more confident about the relationship than I had in months.
Even an answer like that, though, says to my grandmother, at the very best, “yes, G-d always answers prayers, so G-d must have had a reason for letting your life be miserable,” which is still patronizing and pretty awful.
Or how do I explain to my grandmother, who has 50 years of life experience on me, that when I pray, I often don’t ask for things at all? That sometimes I don’t even speak, but listen? That could sound sort of like, “Well, you’re just doing it wrong.”
And what about the times when you beg for something that seems so reasonable, so necessary, so good, and G-d just says no?
Like when I lost my house.
“Everything happens for a reason” doesn’t cut it. I personally believe that it did happen for a reason, but if I’m any closer to discovering that reason, then Ann Coulter is a bunny rabbit. In the meantime, I’m just angry, frustrated, lonely, and very, very sad.
And what about when other really terrible things happened that I didn’t pray for at all? Divorce. Abandonment. Abuse. Neglect. Etc.
So maybe I have more in common with my grandmother here than I’d seen before. I still don’t know how to answer her question.
The ending of this post is going to be anti-climactic, because I have no answer. Nor did I ever give my grandmother an answer – in my hesitation, the conversation moved on to some other topic. I was left wondering how to answer a question like that in a context like that – how do I tell the truth of my own experience, which is that G-d does answer prayers, without diminishing her suffering? What’s the loving response?
What, for that matter, did she really want to know when she asked the question?
How would you have answered?