My title is a quotation from the priest who presided at my Nuptial Mass--it was his usual formula for introducing the Prayers of the People at the evening Newman Center Masses I attended when I was in graduate school. Various people in the congregation would then voice their petitions, and their petitions were very often in the form of rather explicit requests for God to intervene in their lives in a very noticeable and, indeed, extraordinary way. Some wanted healings for specific maladies, others wanted the U.S. government to do something about this or that social problem, yet others asked God to take over the minds of certain people and cause them to think differently than they do (though they didn't always put that last petition in exactly those words).
As long as I've been a believing Christian, I've been troubled by a certain attitude towards prayer in general and towards the miraculous/mysterious in particular that is illustrated in these petitions. Before I converted, I knew folks who would drive around a parking lot praying to find a good parking space, folks who would pray for "miraculous" cures for some specific case of "incurable" cancer, folks who would pray for their favorite team to win a sporting event, folks who would pray for world peace. Some of these petitions seem to be rather evidently better than others as petitions go, at least if we are to judge such things on the basis of their more universal appeal and benefit to the common good, but in a certain sense they are all the same: they all ask God to do something for us that we would like to have done right away and that we cannot accomplish on our own. To the extent that some of them seem beyond the reach of natural processes, such as the healing of what looks to be an incurable cancer, to have such prayers "answered" in a certain way would seem "miraculous", and given that God's omnipotence is beyond our understanding, such "answers" to prayer would also seem "mysterious".
This attitude towards prayer, that is, prayer as a means to obtaining something tangible in this way, is obviously a very naive notion, but it is fairly widespread. I don't think there's anything that can be done about this attitude, but I think it is mistaken. It seems fairly clear to me that God does not, as they say, "work that way". Folks who adopt this attitude towards prayer, however, get a little riled up if you suggest such a thing. If you point to all the very deeply faithful people who pray fervently for things such as these, only to have their prayer requests "denied" by an allegedly omnibenevolent God, you often hear "explanations" running from "those people aren't as faithful as you thought they were" to "God always answers every prayer, but sometimes the answer is 'no', and we mere mortals are in no position to second-guess the almighty: there may be a very good reason for letting a little infant die horribly of cancer in spite of his parents' fervent prayers for a cure, sometimes God brings great good out of the worst evil." I think that all such answers are desperate attempts to grasp at very thin straws, and that all such answers could be avoided if a different attitude towards prayer were taken in the first place.
Today's Gospel reading illustrates what I have in mind. Our Lord says that, if you have sufficient faith, you will be able to say to this tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it will happen. Now, it seems to me that the very first thing to strike one's attention about this is not how powerful faith can be if you have it but, Who in the world would pray for something like that? It's not the sort of thing that would ordinarily count as the object of one's deepest desire, so surely it is a metaphor for something else, but what? In other versions of the story it is a mountain that gets thrown into the sea, so it is tempting to interpret the story as what you can achieve if you have great enough faith, but that seems to me to be just a version of magical thinking: all I have to do is believe in the right way, and God will do whatever I ask him to do. This turns prayer into something rather utilitarian, in my view: trust me enough, and I'll do what you ask, I'll satisfy your desires, whatever they may be.
That this is not the proper way to read the story seems clear enough, I think, because of what follows, the story of the unprofitable servant. Now, if ever there were any textual evidence that Luke is relying on an independent source consisting of a random assemblage of logoi of Our Lord, this is it, and yet it fits right in with the story of the uprooted tree. The point of faith and prayer is not to provide evidence to God that we have accomplished something highly praiseworthy (great faith in him) that warrants some sort of prize (an answer to our prayer in the form of satisfaction of desire). You do not reward somebody for doing their duty. (My children often make this mistake. My son will ask for some sort of treat because he was nice to his sister all day. He is mystified when I tell him that one does not get treats for doing what one is required to do.) So it seems to me that the point of the uprooted tree story cannot be that, if your faith is great enough, God will answer your prayers in the way that people often want him to answer their prayers, that is, by curing some disease, or bringing about world peace, or in general causing things to be other than they are by a miraculous intervention in human history. Although God may, in fact, do such things, I myself don't believe that there is a sufficient reason to believe, in any particular case, that that is what has happened, apart from the Scriptural accounts in which it is made explicit that that is what has happened.
My own view is that the purpose of prayer is not to bring about a satisfaction of material desire in the first place. Its purpose is to satisfy a different sort of desire, namely, the desire for closeness to God. It seems to me that the happiness one experiences, when one obtains satisfaction of material desire, is in itself merely an image of the much greater happiness that we experience when we have friendship with God, just as the pain that we experience in this life is an image of the pain that is sin, i.e., separation from God. All sickness, disease, and death have fully naturalistic explanations, of course, but that does not mean that in the greater ontology that goes beyond mere materialism they are not also signs of something else. The Christian must always be on the lookout for the deeper meaning that is shot through all of material reality, because the Christian is not a materialist: he does not believe that material reality is all that there is, even though it is all that we have access to via the senses. This is why the Christian can be neither a materialist nor an empiricist (at least not globally; he may be locally either one, and indeed he must be if he is also a scientist, but local materialism and local empiricism will not satisfy the likes of a Dawkins or a Dennett, and that is why the Christian must also be an anti-realist about science). So the Christian cannot view prayer as a mere means of rearranging the material furniture of his earthly existence, since that furniture is nothing but a sign of something else and is, in itself, utterly meaningless. If I pray for anything at all, whether it is a parking place or a cure for cancer, what I ought really to be praying for is friendship with God. If I have cancer, I may well be dying. Both the cancer and the process of dying are fully materialistic processes, when viewed from one perspective; but viewed from the Christian perspective they are also signs of sinfulness. Not of some specific, unconfessed sin that I bear on my conscience, mind you, but of the general separation that exists between man and God as a consequence of the Fall. Thanks to Christ, that separation has been healed, but strictly by the grace of God, not in virtue of anything that we have done that deserves a treat or a reward from God in the form of a material answer to a prayer for material comfort.
Instead, God answers prayer by drawing us closer to him. In this sense, I would say, not that God answers every prayer but the answer is sometimes 'no', but I would say rather that God answers every prayer and the answer is always 'yes', even though we may sometimes fail to see the answer, because, like the woman at the well, we don't always know what we're asking for. If I continue to die of cancer, in spite of prayers that I be saved, it is not because God "has other plans" for me. He is, in fact, answering my prayer by loving me and the faith that I display in him by uttering the prayer in the first place. If I expect him to heal my cancer, it may be that I will be disappointed if there is no cure. I may be tempted to say, "My faith was not great enough"; or "God will bring some greater good out of this evil". But responses like these fail to see what prayer fundamentally is, because they assess the "success" of a prayer in terms of whether the human desire for material comfort was met. The best prayer, the prayer that ought to be in every Christian heart at all times, is always "thy will be done". It should be an obvious corollary of that prayer that we do not wish for God's will to conform to ours when it gets done, but that ours be conformed to his, whatever it may be. In this sense, the Christian calling can be a very difficult one, because we are animals that have desires, and we tend to judge our fortunes, our human flourishing, in terms of how well our desires have been met. We often fail to understand that there is one desire that is not a material one that matters more than any other, and that meeting that desire often involves sacrificing all of the other desires. That is what martyrdom amounts to: bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel, that there is a way of life that is not always materially comfortable but that is always preferable to any other way of life because it is spiritually comfortable.