There was a time when I thought of my prayers as some kind of lottery. I might get lucky on a few of my scratchboard prayers and clock up a few ticks, as if I were checking God off against a shopping list. Big wins were a lot less likely—really only dreams. Some people even keep diaries of the answers they feel they have, or have not, received to their specific prayers.
Today, though, I really question this way of thinking of prayer and the ways in which God responds to it. To explain what I mean, we need to go back to our thoughts on the “deepest desire.” An image may help here. We could imagine our deepest desire as a powerful underground stream. Indeed, there are many images of exactly such a stream in Scripture (for example, Ezekiel’s stream, or Jesus’ promise of living water). This stream is so deep in our hearts that for the most part we are not even aware of it ourselves....But this stream does show itself sometimes in the conscious levels of our lives. Like a mountain stream, it bubbles up in small springs and little fountains and trickles along the way. It seeps out of rock faces, and it feeds our mountain flowers.
These visible signs of the underground flow of our hearts could be seen as the desires we know we have. These trickles may show themselves as areas of our experience where we are consciously striving for some specific happiness or success or fulfillment; for example, the strong desire to get a good job (or to get a job at all), to find a partner, to travel the world, to have a child, and so on. Or they may be more obvious by their absence. We may notice dry patches in our lives, and empty spaces, and ask God, in prayer, to fill them and take away the empty aching or the source of specific pain in ourselves or in others.
But all the while the deep current flows on, holding our deepest desire, often unspoken and unrecognized. Without trying too hard to identify what, exactly, it really holds in its depths, let us, rather, for a while in prayer simply be present to its existence, its power, and above all, its benevolence.
And I discover, when I let my prayer become this deep flow that I can’t even name or ever fully know, the amazing truth that God is continuously responding to it, much as the parent of a much loved, much wanted child is continuously aware of the child’s fundamental needs. The parent is continuously attending to those needs even though the child is unaware of them, and even when the child expresses “wants” that will not further his or her real interests and may even be damaging.
A strange reversal follows from this discovery. If I believe that God is continuously responding to my deepest desire, then it follows that by observing God’s action in my life and his movement in my heart, I will be able to see more and more clearly what my deepest desires really are. Paradoxical though it may appear, I will become able to hear my prayers by listening to the answers, and not the other way around.
In a sense, this is another manifestation of the Copernican revolution: my prayer, I find, is not really mine at all but rather expresses the movements of my deepest underground streams and currents that spring from God and are known and understood fully only by him. God’s answers are not brought about by my prayer at all, any more than the sun’s movements are determined by the earth’s. Rather, my prayer is the response to God’s action in my life and his presence in my heart, just as the earth’s existence is a response to the sun’s.