April 15, 2013

Making Space for God in the Face of Grave Evil

How do we pray in the face of grave evil and personal disaster?  Often grave evil has a stifling affect on prayer.  One feels overwhelmed and helpless. In this despondency, the mind struggles to search for God's presence, if it struggles at all.  In the face of unexpected disaster, the crushing burden of difficult questions torments the soul.  Yet, the world in which we live and in which we pray has always been riddled with the mystery of grave and overwhelming evil.  How do we begin to pray when God's love seems so absent and the reason for our hope so difficult to affirm?

Sometimes it feels impossible to pray and prayer is reduced to its most essential and simple movement - the cry of the heart for mercy.  On this point, Pope Emeritus Benedict's Spe Salvi refers to Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan's experiences during his long internment in Vietnam (see #34).  Sometimes, there was nothing the Cardinal could offer from his heart and all he could do was repeats passages from Scripture or prayers he memorized.

I have also spoken to those close to death who complain about the same kind of difficulty in prayer.  They want to want to be able to pray - but there are no words, no thoughts, no feelings, nothing to intuit, nothing to imagine, nothing.  In such moments, God seems so absent and in effort to pray, if effort can be made at all, seems so wasted.  So they repeat simple short phrases they have memorized, "now and at the hour of our death" or else "our hope does not disappoint" or even "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…"  

In such cases, all that is left to the soul seems to be a sort of last vestige of prayer, a feeble desire to raise one's heart to God, a desire hidden in the overwhelming pain that, in this moment and under these circumstances, cannot realize fulfillment and yet chooses to hope anyway.  It is an effort to pray or to desire to pray baptized in heartbreak and dismay -- and in this annihilation, we have already entered deep into the infallible prayer of Christ Crucified.

Who is not reduced to this kind of prayer when the mystery evil crushes the innocent and vulnerable?  When we learn about a friend's daughter paralyzed after a fatal accident, when we learn about explosives killing people at a foot race, or when we learn about the horrific slaughter of babies who having survived callous attempts to abort them were subjected in the most inhumane brutality, it is difficult to pray - the heart is numb, but not our hope.  When the simple words of the Our Father, a Hail Mary, or even the whispered name of Jesus is all that can be offered -- this is what the Lord needs us to offer and this with what love we can muster: for even in the poverty of our prayer, the most frail effort to pray makes space in the world for God to act.  So we find the courage to pray.  The power of God is at work in so many hidden ways that, even when our conversation with the Him is reduced to nothing else than the most humble cry of the heart, the Lord unleashes anew that flood of hope that helps the world begin to see the triumph of good over evil even in face of heart-breaking circumstances.


  1. Yes, sometimes even, "Jesus, I trust in You!" is an extreme effort. Sometimes it is all we can do to turn our eyes and gaze upon the crucifix, and know that is love, that is our hope. We are not alone. He is with us no matter what it feels like and no matter the evil that seems to surround us or affect us. Whatever we can offer to Him, it is enough at those times.

  2. What a beautiful reminder of God's unfailing power. All we need is to ask and He will provide us with what we need in the right moment. Just never lose hope and have faith and no matter where you are and what circumstance you are in, He will never fail you and leave your side. Thanks for sharing this and may God bless you.

  3. The very first thing that comes to mind when reading this is the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans:

    In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will. (Romans 8:26-27)

  4. I completely agree, Anthony. The most honest and loving prayer I've ever experienced was that of a bed-ridden, loved one tracing the name of Jesus with their finger on their pillow. In that, everything was said.

    1. That is so beautiful, Jackie! Thank you for sharing this!

  5. Dr Lilles, Thank you for this post. It is so easy to become dispondent and to question where God was when this happened. Never let me forget that He was there for all of those who cried out to Him. My husband and I were praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet when we saw a twitter, and I remembered that Jesus said if you pray for the dying during the Hour of Mercy, I will stand between them and My Father. Dear Lord, let none who have died an unprovided death.

  6. I was impressed by the article and equally so by the comments. Wonderful witness to the depth of our faith in Christ and His ability to lift us up into His own communion with the Father - a communion that the pain of the Cross cannot interrupt.