Joanne remembers it as if it were just yesterday.
When she was fifteen years old, her grandparents sat her down and told her that her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that the prognosis was not good. She refused to believe it. Bursting out in tears, she yelled at her grandparents, “It’s not true! You’re lying!” Not able to deal with the flood of emotions, she ran out of the house into the woods to be alone.
After an hour or so, as she was able to come to grips with the terrible news and compose herself, she had the idea that she would pray for her mother. She believed that God answered prayers and, surely, he would answer the prayer of a young girl who was about to lose her mother. So she knelt down in the grass, bowed her head and asked God earnestly to heal her mother. When a feeling of peace came over her, she understood it to mean that God had heard her and would heal her mother.
She rushed home and found her mother sitting in the living room waiting for her. They hugged each other and sobbed for what seemed like another hour. After she had a chance to compose herself again, Joanne said to her mother, “Don’t worry, Momma. Everything is going to be alright. I prayed for you and God will heal you, I know it!”
Her mother sat her down on the couch next to her, held her hands and looked into her tear-filled eyes, saying, “Look, honey, it is okay. We need to trust God. If he allowed this to happen, we have to believe that He will make everything turn out okay. We have to accept it and trust that it is for the best.”
“No, no, no,” Joanne screamed out, “I can’t lose you!” and she ran back into her room, slammed the door shut behind her and refused to come out.
Over the next few weeks, Joanne in her prayers would yell at God, telling Him she hated Him for taking her mother away from her. She told herself she would never accept it and never forgive God. Even when she was with her mother, she would only cross her arms tight around her chest and refuse to talk.
With time, however, she began to notice how different her mother’s attitude was. Though she was the one who was suffering and facing death, she always consoled those who came to visit her. She always thanked them for their prayers and told them to trust God. Watching her mother face her illness with so much courage helped Joanne to see how selfish she was being. She had only thought of herself and how her mother’s illness would affect her. She was not thinking of what her mother, father and grandparents were going through.
So she knelt down to pray again, asking God to forgive her for the way she acted and to give her the ability to accept whatever may happen. That feeling of peace she had experienced in the woods came over her again and she went to tell her mother what had happened. She told Joanne that she had been praying for her to accept whatever God wanted for them.
The weeks that followed were still difficult as Joanne’s mother grew sicker and finally died. She missed her mother terribly and still at times would feel angry that she had to lose her at such a young age. But, underneath it all, that sense of peace she felt when she finally accepted God’s will, remained with her and carried her through it all.
We often think of prayer as a way to change God’s mind. If we pray hard enough, if we promise to be good, then we can get our Heavenly Father to do us a favor. But that is not at all how prayer works. Prayer is not about changing God’s mind. It is about changing our mind. Prayer helps us to understand God’s will and to accept it. Prayer helps us to see the world as God sees it, to love others as God loves them and to make choices that please our Heavenly Father.
This was the lesson Joanne learned when she struggled to accept her mother’s cancer. It is the lesson Jesus taught us during His agony in the garden when he prayed, “Not my will but yours be done.” By accepting and living out God’s will in our daily lives, we fulfill the prayer of Jesus that we heard in today’s gospel, “[May] they be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one....”
This does not mean that we do not bring our needs to God in prayer. Our Heavenly Father wants us to ask Him for what we need. When our family or friends are sick we should ask God to comfort and heal them. When we are struggling to pay our bills or find ourselves out of work, we should ask our Heavenly Father to provide for us. No matter what difficulties we are facing, God wants us to ask Him for what we need. At the same time, we have to bring those petitions to Him trusting that He knows what is best for us and that, no matter what happens, we will trust Him. When we pray that way - not trying to change God’s mind but open to having our minds changed - we will experience profound peace no matter what challenges life may have in store for us.
When we pray in such a way, not only will we experience peace but we will also receive the power to forgive. Joanne was able to forgive God eventually for her mother’s death. Jesus was able to forgive those who crucified Him because of His trust in the Father’s will. And Saint Stephen in today’s first reading also forgave those who stoned Him because He trusted in God’s love for Him. As we come to grips with our Heavenly Father’s will through prayer we also will find ourselves letting go of the bitterness of the past.
We gather here today to pray as Jesus taught us. We are here not to change God but to experience a change of mind and heart for ourselves. We are here to find the wisdom to discover God’s will and the courage to put it into practice. In such a way, we can bring peace and forgiveness to a world torn apart by pride and strife.