Or, How a Lifelong Southern Baptist Learned Something (Really Obvious) about Prayer by Following a Roman Catholic Tradition
I can tell you (mostly) about how I came to do what I did, but not really why. It started out simply enough. I was in my car, listening to Sirius/XM channel 28, as one does, and they played the new song by Florence + The Machine, which is one of my favorite bands. (I adopted my personal motto, Paratus patior, paratus spes — ready to suffer, ready to hope — after a line in one of their songs.) This song was called St. Jude.
So I went and looked St. Jude up on Wikipedia, as one does. I knew (from a misspent youth spent reading newspapers) that St. Jude was the patron saint of lost causes, but I didn’t know why. Wikipedia:
St. Jude is known as the patron saint of lost causes amongst Roman Catholics. This is due to the tradition that, because his name was similar to the traitor Judas Iscariot, few, if any faithful Christians prayed for his intervention, out of the mistaken belief that they would be praying to Judas Iscariot. As a result, St. Jude was little used, and so became eager to assist any who asked him, to the point of intervening in the most dire of circumstances. The Church also wanted to encourage veneration of this “forgotten” disciple. Therefore, the Church maintained that St. Jude would intervene in any lost cause to prove his saintliness and zeal for Christ, and thus St. Jude became the patron of lost causes.
Well, there you go. Wikipedia further goes on to say that Catholic prayers to St. Jude are traditionally done as a novena, which comes from the Latin word for nine, which means that you make the same prayer over nine days.
And I thought to myself, I could do that.
I am not Catholic. I am a Southern Baptist. I come from three generations of Southern Baptists on my mother’s side. My dad was a preacher in a series of tiny Southern Baptist congregations across North Texas and Canada when I was growing up. I went to Baylor University, for God’s sake, which is the largest Baptist university in the world. There is a theory that, when Jesus comes back, that he’s going to Waco and set up the Great White Throne in front of the theology building at Baylor.
So, okay. I am not a Catholic. I am not within a thousand miles of being a Catholic, or ever becoming one. (Truth be told, I’m not a very good Baptist, when you get right down to it.) I had, up until this point, never in my life prayed to a saint or recited a prayer someone else had written down. That is, emphatically, not the Baptist way. Baptists rejoice in the “priesthood of the believer,” the concept that Jesus is the only intercessor that anyone needs between man and God. The concept of praying to a saint is fundamentally alien to the denomination. You pray directly to God and hope that he hears you, or that’s what I was taught.
Well, it couldn’t hurt, could it? It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to pray to St. Jude, would it? Especially if you were in the middle of a lost cause — something you had worked on for over a year, something that you had been oh-so-close to getting more than once, something that you had essentially despaired of ever going right in your life again. If you were in that kind of position, where you felt as though everything you had tried hadn’t worked, well then? Even if it wasn’t part of your denomination, or how you understood your religion?
To quote that great sage of Southeast Texas, Lyle Lovett, “But what would you be if you didn’t even try? You have to try.”
So I prayed. I pulled up a prayer to St. Jude from the Eternal Word TV network site, which I figured was sufficiently Catholic. I put it on my browser on my iPhone. And over the last nine days, I prayed. I prayed the prayer, mostly silently, over and over again, asking for the help of St. Jude on this issue that has consumed my time and energy over the last year. (I won’t say what that was, here, for the obvious reason that I don’t want to.)
I prayed. I prayed in the morning. I prayed at work. I prayed whenever I brought up Safari to look at my (dismal) sales figures for my novels. I prayed the same prayer, over and over. Eternal Word recommends that you say an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” afterwards; I was happy to pray the Lord’s Prayer but I drew the line at the Hail Mary (in part because I don’t know the words but mostly because I’m never going to be that Catholic). And I sent a few bucks to the St. Jude hospital in Memphis, because the prayer said that you would “always honor you as my special and powerful patron,” and that seemed like the best way to do that.
So here’s what happened. When you pray this prayer, you’re supposed to insert what it is you want help with — what your particular lost cause is. And I started out just praying for that one thing. But in the last few days of the novena, I started slipping in a second thing. The second thing was work-related; it was a prayer for a client in a case that I had coming up for an administrative hearing on the 10th. (I can’t say anything about the case, but I will say that I represent clients with serious disabilities at a federally-funded non-profit in New Jersey.) I didn’t really mean to slip it in, but I was anxious about the case, and I wanted to win it for my client, who was in desperate need of the services that he had requested. So I prayed for myself, for my own needs, and for my client’s.
Guess what happened. Guess.
On the last day of the novena, the day before the administrative hearing, opposing counsel in my case called me to tell me that his client had relented and my client could have the services that he desperately needed without having to go before a judge.
And I didn’t hear anything, not Thing One, about the issue I was concerned about in my own life.
Was my prayer answered? I would like to say yes, but if it was answered it was in least in part on the hard work I had put into the case. (“Pray as though everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you,” and if St. Augustine didn’t say that, he should have.) Did St. Jude intervene? Hard to say. I would like to think so, but I don’t really know and I am not comfortable saying that my client’s case was a “lost cause” because it really wasn’t.
Was my personal prayer answered? As of today, I would have to say no, because I didn’t get the result that I wanted within the time frame that I wanted. Maybe my prayers will bear fruit later. Maybe they won’t. Maybe God and St. Jude are not personally looking out for me. Maybe they are, in ways that I don’t even recognize. (I did have a car crash materialize right in front of me during the novena — if I had been in the center lane rather than in the left lane I would have been crushed to death by a flying mini-van. Maybe that was God looking out for me, although if that’s the case He might have kept the mini-van from crashing in the first place.)
After my wife had a miscarriage, my mother tried to comfort me by saying that it was all a part of God’s plan. “If that’s the case,” I said, “then He came up with a stupid plan.”
I don’t presume to know God’s plan here, if He has one. I don’t know if he will hear my cry for help or if he will do anything about it. I don’t like feeling that I am not fully in control of my life — that some supernatural force, call it what you want, is going to decide what happens next to me, and that I have to pray in a certain way to summon a certain saint to make things move the way I want, when I want them.
What I know is that when I prayed for my own needs, it didn’t work, but when I prayed for someone else’s needs, it did. And in hindsight, it’s obvious that it would have worked out that way.
I don’t think I will pray the novena again, but I’m glad that I did. I learned something, and that’s more than a lot of people ever do. I learned a little patience, and a little compassion, and a little humility, all of which are good for you, at least in small doses. I tried to approach faith and spirituality in a different context, which is a good thing, irregardless. I can say that I approached my prayers with a little more consistency and discipline, which are fine things just in and of themselves.
But… it didn’t work, did it? I didn’t get the intended result, and I have to tell you that I feel more than a little disappointed about that, at some tiny selfish level.
And I don’t know what to say about that. It’s not wrong to pray for yourself, although the Lord’s Prayer limits that to one’s daily bread. I didn’t get what I wanted, but that doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of God or the diligence of St. Jude one way or another. It may be just one of those things. It may be that God has something else in mind. It may be (it probably is) that I have to put in more work than I have done already (and although I have done a mort of work so far there is always more you can do).
Pray for me, the prayer reads. I am so helpless and alone.
I may be helpless. It certainly seems that way. I may be alone. It certainly seems that way at times. I am praying, though.
I am praying that I am wrong.