You know what’s terrible? When God says “no”. Maybe you’ve prayed, “God, heal my child’s brain injury”—and it doesn’t happen…
In this episode, we’re exploring the tricky and sometimes uncomfortable questions that come up when we pray for help. From cancer to heartbreak, divorce, rejection, or any kind of suffering, sometimes we’re in situations where prayer feels like our only recourse. But when faced with such questions as “what does it say about God if he doesn’t answer my prayers?” or “is it selfish to pray for healing?” we need to pause and reflect on the nature of prayer and what it means to ask for help from a divine being.
The phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” is often used to describe the primal instinct that comes out when people are pushed beyond their limits; the instinct to cry out for help. But what happens when God does not answer those cries? Nina tells her personal story of suffering that led her to ask complex and difficult questions about faith, our own mortality, and the true nature of God.
In this episode, we’re discussing why it seems like some prayers go unanswered, and what to do if you find yourself in this situation. Now because my background is in mystical theology and the catholic tradition, I’m framing this conversation using the terminology of Franciscanism, Ignatian spirituality and Carmelite spirituality, but I’m going to weave in other religious terminology as well, because some of you might find Buddhism or Hinduism or paganism more relatable. The journey that our souls take—that is, the way you mature as a human being throughout your life is universal. It’s at the core of what makes us human. This goes way deeper than The Hero’s Journey. This is the mystical journey of returning to the Oneness from which you came, hopefully during this lifetime, while you’re still alive. This isn’t about the afterlife. This journey is about peeling back the veil and exposing The Real. You discover who you truly are and what you have to offer the world. You see The Plan from a bird’s eye view. And in moments you feel challenged, you’re able to recall this wisdom and act accordingly. You learn that the events and activities in your life are merely the result of causes that you have created in the past. You are continually (through your habits and by your thinking, and your activities)… you are continually creating causes for your own future.
Prayer is a lifeline that keeps you connected to your inner compass, where your truth resides, where you can hear what God is telling you to do, where you can reflect on right and wrong. Prayer strengthens your stamina, resilience and ability to stay connected with God during hard times that tempt you away from your true essence. (fears, angry, jealousy, insecurity, things like that)
In the mystical tradition, your relationship with God can be categorized into 3 streams, and 7 layers, or depths. Each layer goes deeper and deeper into your own soul where God resides. And each of these seven layers is characterized by a type of prayer. It’s like each layer of depth has its own native language. You can’t have a conversation with God at that level unless you’re fluent in the language. Picture these layers like the difference between small talk with a cashier vs an intimate conversation about the meaning of life with an old friend. Really different levels of depth!
I don’t want you to worry right now about what the categories are. We’ll get into that in future episodes. Right now, what concerns us is developing the proper disposition to pray. You want to be the most authentic version of myself when you pray. When you can witness yourself at your most soft, humble, vulnerable, it really helps you develop self-compassion. And that relationship ith yourself, guarded by the watchful eye of God, helps you discover the treasure you are, and your deepest desires. Prayer is so precious because it’s safe for you to be completely yourself. It takes a certain amount of spiritual maturity to let go of fear and judgment, and to fully unwind.
Let me ask you this: when you sit down to pray, who are you praying to? What is your concept of the God who is listening to your prayers? For most people, God is like a parent, who sometimes rewards us for good behaviour and punishes us for bad behaviour. But that’s an oversimplification, isn’t it. As we discussed in the last episode, the divine is so much more than a personified being.
God is Causality. What does that mean…. It (God) is the Lifeforce that animates everything in the universe. God is not a Person, Entity or a Supreme Being sitting at the top of some sort of metaphysical 9-5. Rather, God is pure existence itself; It’s something that exists beyond and separate from this physical plane but also infuses every part of it. Think of God as the unconditional reality behind everything we see and experience both physically and spiritually.
When you pray, see if you can simply connect to the energy that animates you. Try picturing or feeling the force that enlivens your whole being, your body, your mind, your heart. God resides within you and is also present beyond everything imaginable. When you’re open to this possibility, it fills you with childlike wonder.
The main difference between God as the Supreme Being vs. God as Beingness itself is that—if you believe that God is a person at the top of a hierarchy, then the divine would be responsive to persuasion. However, if you understand that God is Beingness itself, then you can see that It isn’t just one thing in the universe—It IS existence. God causes everything and isn’t influenced by anything.
The reason this matters so much when you pray is because you don’t want to pray for external outcomes. You want to pray for internal changes. If you pray for circumstances to change around you, it will seem to you like your prayers are going unanswered.
There’s a saying in Carmelite spirituality. It goes like this, “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no”. I think that’s funny! AND, it is so revealing of the common mindset. It is true that every prayer is answered, BUT if the answer is “no”, that is your sign to ask yourself what your motives are. Why do you want what you are praying for? What is your motivation? Are you sure you’re praying for the right thing?
Obviously, we can all see why a prayer like, “Lord, please give me a Ferrari” doesn’t align with the Mind of God. The Divine doesn’t care about the car you drive. The whole purpose of prayer is that you align your will with God’s will or “the Divine Mind” if you like that term better…. What matters is that you discover your own deepest desire. And here’s the amazing thing. Your deepest desire and God’s will are the same.
This is why praying for outcomes often doesn’t work. That’s not really the purpose of prayer. For example—if you pray for a promotion at your work, let’s say, and you don’t get it, that means the answer to your prayer is “no”. So, you have to ask yourself about your motivations.
When the answer is “no”, it means that this is an opportunity for you to look at why you value what you value. Is this about how you want other people to think of you? Is this about wanting security? Do you have something to prove to yourself? Are you trying to define your identity in some way? Why do you want that promotion, that relationship, that external outcome? There’s nothing wrong with wanting these things, but just ask yourself: What does this external outcome represent for me?
Having conversations with yourself that reveal your unconscious motivations will uncover the even deeper wants that actually point to a more authentic desires you have for yourself. Let’s say you realize that the real reason you want that promotion is because you want to prove to yourself that you can do it. And let’s say that you reflect on this and you admit to yourself that there’s a part of you that actually feels quite insecure, like you’re not enough as you are.
So maybe instead of “God, help me get that promotion” the more authentic prayer is: “God, help me to know that I am enough. Help me to calm this anxiety of not being successful enough and help me feel loved so that when I go for this promotion, even if I don’t get it, that I have the internal strength to deal with that rejection. Help me develop self-compassion so I can take care of myself.” Those are two very different types of prayer. The first is trying to change circumstances. The second is asking for help to change yourself. So, in this example the deepest desire is to feel good enough, loved, accepted.
When you discover your deepest desire, it’s so joyful and empowering that you can feel your soul sizzle. That sounds weird, but it’s the best way I can describe it. It feels like: you’re no longer praying to the Divine. You’re praying in the Divine, because you’ve entered into communion with the Mind of God. You’re stepping into what God wants for you.
St Augustine articulates it this way. He says,
“Prayer is the expansion of the heart and soul outward so as to receive the gift that God wants to give you.”St Augustine
This level of prayer is about purging the ego’s desires and discovering your soul’s desire. This type of prayer is like a conversation with the Universe where you expose your heart to God and together the two of you discover your true nature and potential.
Prayer is a crucible that strips you of false desires and orients you towards your deepest desire. Theologians have a word for this, It’s “impetration”, from the Latin word “impetratio”. It means that if you come to pray with the right attitude, then invariably you will obtain that which you seek, provided it is for your spiritual advantage.
I think we can all agree that a Ferrari isn’t for your spiritual advantage, and we can question whether a promotion at work is to your spiritual advantage, it might be, but it probably isn’t the deepest desire that’s present in prayer, there’s probably something more behind your wishes…. but the prayer “God, help me feel like I’m enough” —this is a prayer that touches the soul. You can feel it. There’s an energy around this intention.
Let’s get a little more complicated now. What about a prayer like this… “God, please heal my cancer”… Do you think this prayer comes from the deepest desire of the soul? … Just to be clear, no one is entitled to an opinion about what someone should or should not pray for. That is between them and God. I’m using an uncomfortable example for the sake of this thought experiment.
You might be in a situation like this right now—with a diagnosis like this. Only you can discern how to pray about this. It’s not for me or for anyone else to say. God deals with each of us differently, according to our own spiritual needs. So your answer to this question will be very personal.
This is really personal because I had to ask myself this question. My first instinct after receiving a diagnosis was to pray for God to heal me… but thank goodness I paused to reflect on whether this is an appropriate prayer. In pausing for a moment and thinking about it, I learned so much about the nature of prayer, about who God is and about what I’m really here for.
Obviously we all want to say “yes, that prayer can and should be prayed. It’s not selfish or coming from the ego. It’s about health. It’s life. Of course we should be praying for God to heal an illness”…. And maybe you’re right, but it’s tricky because this is a situation where if you’re dying, you are an innocent victim of an outrageously unfair situation that results in suffering.
In the context of my life, one of my most helpless suffering was cancer. For you, it may be a heartbreak, or death of a loved one, divorce, betrayal, rejection, a loss of some kind. We have all been in situations where we’re faced with what feels like insurmountable pain.
Have you heard the expression “There are no atheists in foxholes”? It means that no matter who you are, when people pushed to the edge of what they can bear, they will be so afraid that out comes the most primal of prayers… which is: “God help me! Get me out of this!”
You know what’s terrible? When God says “no” to that kind of prayer. What does it say about God that doesn’t come to save you in this kind of desperate suffering?? Maybe you’ve been in a situation like this. Maybe you’ve prayed, “God, heal my child’s brain injury”—and it doesn’t happen…
You might question the existence of God, or maybe you wonder whether the Universe is an unloving place. Maybe you felt forgotten, or worst of all, you might have questioned whether you did something to deserve this suffering. If you’ve ever felt this kind of desolation, I feel you. It’s not your fault.
There’s no correlation between your worth and the shitty things that happen to you. Bad things happen to good people. Whatever it is, you did not deserve this. It just happened, and now we have to deal with it, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
The day I was diagnosed with cancer was the worst day of my life, and it was the best day of my life because I received a clear message that there’s no point in praying for a cure. As unfair as suffering is, it doesn’t make you a victim. I knew that asking God to make it go away was about my preference to be healthy, but that has nothing to do with the development of my soul. I know how brutal that sounds because obviously the desire to live a long and healthy life is a good, legitimate and natural one! But the truth is, it’s just another luxury.
I’m using a severe example to punctuate the hard truth, which is that not even a prayer for your life is the right prayer, if it doesn’t orient you towards God.
The only prayer that should be prayed is the one that strengthens your soul and benefits your spiritual growth and the wellbeing of others.
Did you hear what I just said? This is the most important point. If you’re going to take anything away from this episode, this is it. So, if you’re multitasking, stop for a second and come back to me. Take this in: The only prayer that should be prayed is the one that strengthens your soul and benefits your spiritual growth and the wellbeing of others.
Thankfully I survived cancer, but I didn’t know at the time whether it was God’s will, so I didn’t dare pray for it because what hurts more than any kind of pain is resisting the pain itself. I knew that if I cling to a desire to live, it’s going to create such intense suffering because that might not be a realistic hope! It’ll tear me apart from the inside out.
It hurts less to surrender to the unknown, even the scariest unknown of all—death. Instead of praying to get better, I asked myself: will being cured of cancer help me grow spiritually? Will being cured of cancer develop my sense of integrity? Will being cured of cancer make me a more compassionate and understanding person? Will surviving cancer cultivate reverence for God or inner fortitude? Will surviving cancer give me wisdom? It was really, really, really hard for me to be honest with myself and listen to the answer because the answer was no…. And so, I knew that praying for a cure would be going backwards.
In fact, and this sounds insane because it’s so opposite from the rules of the world, but having cancer actually helped me grow spiritually. Because it put me in a helpless situation that I had no control over.
And when it dawned on me just how utterly helpless I was…. I was so raw… that I just felt happy. I was happy not because I was suffering. I’m not masochistic. I was happy because my options were: be brave or die of fear. And I chose to be brave and face reality and use whatever time I had left to cherish the things I do have.
I’m telling you this story in hopes that if you find yourself in a situation of trauma or unbearable suffering, my recommendation is to pray for the courage to face reality. The truth is that you already have what it takes to do whatever it is that lays before you. If you can face your situation with an open, humble, courageous heart, you will attain resilience, strength, and wisdom. It is inevitable.
So instead of praying for your situation to resolve itself, whatever it may be, you can say: God, be with me. Be with me as I face this hardship. Give yourself over. And know that you have what it takes to do whatever it is. In the words of Ignatius of Loyola, “Take, O Beloved Lord, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. I surrender all of my decisions and my freedom to choose. All that I am and all that I have, is only mine because You gave it to me; and now, I return everything to You. All that I ask is that You keep giving me your Love. Hold on to me so I know you’re there. That is enough for me. I neither need nor want anything else. Amen.”
For me, the best part wasn’t surviving cancer. It was experiencing the true joy of being liberated from the desire to survive, and instead just vivaciously enjoying every moment. Every moment is a gift. You can live your whole life as a prayer.
Imagine being acutely present to the Energy of Life as it is giving Itself to you. If you were present to the full magnitude of the miracle that is your consciousness in this moment, it would irrevocably change you. When consciousness becomes aware of itself, it’s more than mindfulness. Mindfulness is what happens when we meditate. There’s a certain experience of being the observer of your own experience. But, I’m speaking of something slightly different: Mystical Awareness. This is what happens when mindfulness expands beyond the bounds of individuation. It is rare that a person is driven to this state of hyper-awareness. Normally only under extreme circumstances such as a near-death-experience, or giving birth—where your mind is teetering on the edge of life and whatever comes afterwards, or life and whatever came before. This side, and the other side.
We become so aware of life’s fragility and its preciousness, it’s as if we step outside of time and we notice everything for the first time. You can feel the Universe smiling in the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze, in the delicate architecture of a flower, in the feeling of warm sunshine pressing on your skin. I remember stepping outside for the first time after my surgery, in the gardens of the hospital and…. the birdsong was the most beautiful sound I ever heard. I closed my eyes and listened. Little things. The way the clouds glide across the sky can move you to tears. The way your lungs expand and contract somehow connects you with the way the universe expands and contracts. It’s a transcendent union with the entire manifest world, a seamless interconnection that culminates into a singular sensation of overwhelming totality.
I’m so glad that I survived cancer, but the real miracle is that my soul was healed in the process. I would have died happy because I learned what it means to be fully alive while facing death.
Don’t pray for outcomes. Pray for the maturing of your soul. In the end, this is what matters.
My friend, it’s a privilege to spend time with you. Thank you so much for listening to this very personal story. I hope that you feel inspired to reflect on your spiritual path and the unique way that God is calling you to become an even more beautiful version of yourself.
In the next episode, we’ll talk about “Mystical Prayer”, which is entirely different from the “Purgative Prayer” we’ve discussed in this episode.
Mystical Prayer is what the mystics do. It’s a way of melting into The Mystery and resting in that in-between zone between what Christians call God The Father and what Zen Buddhism calls Samadhi, a largely thought-free state in which all is gathered into Oneness.
This is going to be a metaphysical conversation, not a dogmatic one. We’ll take a look at what the Trinity is and how you can experience the Holy Spirit for yourself. St Bonaventure calls it, “a raging fire of glowing love”.
Tasting this Glowing Love (that is, the Holy Spirit), is beyond the reach of all intellectual faculties. This is about listening for the whispered invitation in your heart, which is actually the voice of the Divine reaching for you, reminding you of what’s truly Real.
I’m looking forward to it.
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Mentioned in the show
St Augustine of Hippo on mystical prayer
St Ignatius of Loyola, Suscipe Prayer