Before my spiritual awakening – one that I can partially thank CatholicMatch for – I’d had a very limited understanding of what prayer was.
I’d memorized all the requisite prayers that good Catholics do without really pondering their significance. Of course, the day it occurred to me that “if I should die before I wake” was a frightening thought, I was glad I spent my childhood blissfully unaware of what those words meant!
But a few years ago, in conversation with a fellow CatholicMatch member, it occurred to me what prayer is really for. If we are asking God to do something for us and forming an attachment to a specific outcome, then we really aren’t open to His will. I likened all my previous prayers to a child’s wish list at Christmastime. How naive and self-centered of me!
I’d grown up thinking that asking for a specific outcome was fine, simply because my prayers were answered often enough.
Case in point: One summer afternoon a few years ago, I heard myself blurt out to my mother: “I only want to teach if it’s for a university or a museum.”
I had no idea why I said it; we hadn’t been talking about my profession. But my mom just looked me in the eye, nodded and went back to her knitting. I should have known she’d started a novena for me that day.
Lo and behold, over the next few weeks I’d gotten three phone calls, all looking to hire me. One was from a favorite museum of mine. The other two were from local universities. I’d never even applied for any of them, but somehow they’d all gotten my contact information.
Having no other explanation, I called my mother to tell her what happened and asked, “Padre Pio?”
Her answer: “He never fails!”
It stands to reason, then, that I hadn’t questioned any lists of demands I was praying for. These checklists reached into every area: my creative work, my looks and, most specifically, my desire for a partner.
I had no qualms about asking Padre Pio for every last item. After all, didn’t He come through for me before, with exacting precision? But God had a few very specific, very funny lessons for me!
In very quick succession, I’d met and briefly dated three men. In what could only be referred to as “Godcidental,” they each had some variation of the name that belonged to Padre Pio, which I took as a cosmic signal each time that he was The One, this was IT!
This was a handsome, polite gentleman who really liked me. In him I saw the inventory I’d listed years before: well-traveled, well-educated, well-mannered, well-groomed, financially stable and chivalrous.
We shared a love of vinyl records, late 19th-century photography and Japanese novelists.
His false self and my false self were highly compatible, but scratch the surface and it was a whole other story.
We could spend hours laughing and making small talk, but when our conversations went deeper, we were both faced with walls that seemed insurmountable. It didn’t take long for me to realize this, and we parted ways.
Because of my interest in diverse cultures, I thought I wanted a Maronite, or one of the other Eastern Catholic denominations. I wanted him to be physically strong but have a sensitive side, working in some humanitarian capacity. I wanted someone who shared my views on Postcolonial literary theory and who’d read all the Existentialist philosophers, who knew all the important poets, who would know just how vital women were in the continuation of not just the family but of civilization.
And the man I met was all of those things, down to the tiniest detail.
He was also clearly not ready for a relationship, as I quickly discovered.
This guy was perfect. He had all the other things I’d been asking for. He was handsome, tall and strong; he had many long-term, healthy friendships and came from a solid family.
He’d been Jesuit-educated, showed no signs of addictions or neuroses, respected women, and had a good sense of humor. He had the same taste in music as me, made very good choices in clothes and tattoos, showed himself to be ambitious and kind…but had zero interest in me.
After all this, I realized I’d just been presented with every last demand I’d thought of, along with a very clear message that none of these things were going to work for me.
Had I not come to understand what it meant to trust in God’s will, I’d have felt shaken to the very core. I remembered the awful, lonely feeling of rejection when I was much younger and thought that God simply didn’t want to answer my prayers. But this time, I felt no fear. I found the whole thing funny, in fact, and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next!
Last November I met someone who had absolutely no business showing up. He wasn’t anywhere on my wish lists.
For one, he’s a musician; and I swore off musicians years ago.
Second, he violated some of the non-negotiable items in my inventory: did not earn an advanced degree from a reputable college, had not gotten a membership card to the New York Public Library system and was not well-acquainted with any of our city’s museums.
But despite all, I agreed to a date.
And here’s the final lesson. On our second date, the conversation came around to my interests in flash mobs and public art.
He listened attentively and then said, “You strike me as someone who doesn’t know your own worth.”
Before my spiritual awakening, I’d have pegged him as a player who knew exactly what women want to hear. But he was so guileless and said it with such compassion, I couldn’t dismiss him. I casually agreed with him and told myself to give this guy a chance.
One time we began talking about our wish lists, and I rattled off all of my demands. He bravely pointed out two things: one, that he fit none of my criteria, and two, that not anywhere on those lists were things about how I’d like men to treat me.
This was a huge revelation.
Why hadn’t this occurred to me before? I’d just assumed that would be part of the package, particularly if a man has a basic respect for women. But the point is less about who these men on my wish lists were in reality and more about why that was missing from my criteria.
And it dawned on me: perhaps it’s what God wants for me, because I realized that, all too often, He cares more for me than I care for myself.
Had I truly been willing to compromise how I wanted to be treated in exchange for a guy with a library card or a museum membership?
It would seem so.
And here was someone I never even asked for, reminding me of the greatest lesson I could learn: wish lists, masquerading as prayers, may not be in accordance with God’s will. Welcoming the unexpected makes it so much more interesting, too!