“You might assume that in the entertainment industry, the still, small voice of prayer doesn’t get much of a hearing,” Micheal Flaherty, president of Walden Media, said at a luncheon last week after the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
“That’s not entirely true,” he continued. He went on to show a clip from Walden’s movie about the life of William Wilberforce — “a busy and important public figure … a man always pressed for time, who struggled as we do to stop and pray and listen.” Flaherty went on:
Somehow it’s good to know that even the greatest of people have struggled to make time for prayer. And it turns out that even a William Wilberforce — even the most heroic and faithful of souls — could feel a little awkward in their secret meetings with God. Who hasn’t known the feeling? Yet for all of that, prayer is something nearly all of us do. The folks at Gallup tell us that 90 percent of Americans pray, and even that may be an undercount.
From the new soldier encountering enemy fire in Afghanistan, to the young mother watching over her premature baby in the NICU, to the gay teenager being bullied by classmates, so many of us reveal our private hopes and desires to God — and sometimes only to Him. If we ever feel forgotten by others … or that no one else has time to listen, it’s nice to know that the Maker of heaven and earth is always available.
Many people took their prayers directly to Jesus during his short ministry. And they also took their questions. Some of these will sound familiar to those of you in public life:
Do I really have to pay taxes?
How many times should I forgive my enemy?
And a favorite of ours in Hollywood — “What are you going to do for us?”
In his excellent book on Prayer, the author Philip Yancey tallied the questions put to Jesus in the New Testament, and it came to a total of 183. Yet he only gave a direct answer to three of these questions. His usual way was to answer with a story. How should we treat our neighbors? Listen to the parable of the Good Samaritan. How do we heal a broken family? Listen to the tale of the Prodigal Son.
Twenty centuries later, these stories remain with us. And so do many of the questions. So, in prayer, we turn for answers to the same first-century Rabbi. And it may be that He gives his answer in the same way — not quite as directly as we’d prefer, but in the roundabout way of parables, of the stories He writes in our own lives.
We also should not rule out the possibility that His answers can come in the stories of humanity’s own making. Just as the Bible is the Word of God in the words of man, the stories of inspired writers can sometimes capture a message that seems meant for us. The message can reach us not only through the red-letter parables of the New Testament, but also in books, or plays, or music, or even movies.
Dorothy Day once said, “I don’t think the Lord minds if we see him in books other than His book. . . . I’ve often wondered whether some of these books, which seem to be so inspired, even exalted in their wisdom, whether our Lord hasn’t had a close, direct hand in their creation.”
Maybe the best evidence that she was right — that he speaks to us in other works as well — comes from efforts of various tyrants over the years to crush religious freedom and rid their lands of spiritual literature. Malcolm Muggeridge once related a conversation he’d with a Russian dissident in the 1970s. He told Muggeridge that there was a spiritual revival happening in the Soviet Union.
“I asked him how this could have happened,” Muggeridge wrote, “given the enormous anti-religious brainwashing job done on the citizenry, and the absence of all Christian literature, including the Gospels. His reply was memorable: The authorities, he said, forgot to suppress the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.” The story that was already imprinted on those Russian hearts — the story of an all-loving, all-powerful, all-forgiving God — was brought to life on those pages.
I’m blessed to have parents who believed in the mutual power of stories and prayer. My mother, a pediatric nurse, took us to the Robbins library every week. I remember when she handed me my first Library Card in Kindergarten. She was very ceremonial about it. She bent down to my eye level, handed it to me gently like it was a relic, and said: “As long as you have this library card, you will always have a friend.”
My parents’ love of stories was not limited to literature. My father, a public defender whose parents emigrated from Ireland, thought the answer to every one of life’s important questions could be found in the lyrics of an Irish song. We were the first house in our neighborhood to get Cable TV. And we always went to the movies as a family.
One of our favorites was It’s a Wonderful Life. Like many other families, we watched it together every Christmas. The film begins in the heavens, where God listens to the heartfelt prayers offered up by the friends of George Bailey. An angel named Clarence asks God if George is sick. “Worse,” God replies. “He is discouraged.”
Of course God knows something about people being discouraged and praying to him desperately for help. He even heard it from His own son in Gethsemane.
God also knows quite well what it means to be at the end of our rope, desperate enough to take our own life. Four people in the Hebrew Scriptures — Moses, Job, Jonah, and Elijah –– actually prayed to die. And because the answer was not as they wished, they went on to become heroes of the faith.
In the film, too, God was not ready for George Bailey to be finished with his earthly life that night on Christmas Eve. Through the intercession of Clarence, the angel, George is able to see that his life is not as bad as he had thought. And he is able to see the life-changing impact and influence his seemingly meaningless life has had on his friends, his family, and his community.
But it is not until George Bailey completely surrenders and begs God that all is set right. “I want to live again,” he prays. “Please Lord, let me live again.”
The most memorable characters, in some of our greatest stories, all have something to teach us. And it can be hard to shake the feeling that the artists are inspired beyond even their own talent and wisdom, whether it’s the work of Frank Capra or of Victor Hugo. Think of Les Miserables, about a thief named Jean Valjean who turns his life over to God to become a honest man. He eventually becomes one of the more prosperous businessmen in France. Valjean never forgets where the credit is due. “My soul belongs to God, I know,” sings Valjean, “he gave me hope when hope was gone, he gave me strength to carry on.”
Of course our own prayer life is not always so dramatic and so heroic. Sometimes we feel like we don’t even know where to begin. As Thomas Merton wrote, when it comes to prayer, we are all beginners.
We get bored and distracted. Our mind quickly wanders to a million different things, and we begin to feel the pressure of the world creeping in, demanding that we cut our prayer time short. Even Theresa of Avila, that great Catholic master of prayer, admitted to shaking the sands in her hourglass to make the time go by faster. There are great stories that reflect these mundane moments as well.
I remember when I was younger my mother took me to see The Fiddler on the Roof. I got a kick out of Tevye, the Russian milkman who is always talking to God. At one point his horse is injured and he is forced to drag the milk cart on his own. Discouraged, Tevye looks to God to make sense of things:
“I can understand it when you punish me when I am bad; or my wife because she talks too much; or my daughter when she wants to go off and marry a Gentile, but . . . what have you got against the horse?”
I love how Tevye speaks simply and directly to God, in the wise, earnest voice of a child. It reminds us of Jesus telling us that when we approach God, we should do so as children, “for such is the kingdom of heaven.”
The pure faith of children is a common theme in literature. And you might say we’ve made it a business model at Walden Media. For many of our films, we return to the books that I checked out with my first library card. Others draw from a new crop of classics, like the stories my wife taught to her fifth-grade class at Saint Peter’s in South Boston … stories that speak to the moral imagination of children.
In Charlotte’s Web, Fern tells her parents about the great conversations she has with her new friends — Wilbur the Pig and Charlotte the Spider. Her parents are so concerned they visit a psychiatrist to see if this is “normal behavior.” In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy is thrilled to tell her sister and brothers about her visit to the winter wonderland of Narnia. Her siblings are so concerned that they visit with their uncle, a professor, to see if Lucy has lost her mind. The professor tells them there are only three possible outcomes: She is either a liar, a lunatic, or she is telling the truth.
All of these stories remind us of a simple truth — the substance of faith is a hope in the unseen. When we want to talk to people about things that they cannot see with their own eyes or touch with their own hands, we always run the risk of people thinking that we are crazy … deluded because we pray to an invisible God That’s when we need to remember the wisdom of yet another inspired character, the fox who tells the Little Prince that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
To conclude with a final story from real life, I learned something during the making of that film about the life of Wilberforce. The film was called Amazing Grace, after the famous piece by John Newton, and I’d always thought that Newton experienced an instant and complete conversion. But it turns out the story was a little more complicated, and his conversion a little more drawn out.
Newton is best described in his own words — “an infidel, a libertine,” and a slave trader. One night as he was sailing back to England, his ship started to fill with water and was about to capsize. Newton prayed to God for help, and the ship was miraculously saved.
By the time he got back to England, Newton was reading his Bible daily. He went to Church on Sundays. He stopped gambling. He stopped smoking. He stopped swearing. I bet he even stopped dancing. But for more than three more decades, he continued in the slave trade. For all his newfound insight and proper behavior, he didn’t at first see any need for a career change, but instead resolved to be most moral slave trader in all of England.
For his time and place — this did not seem like an outrageous contradiction. How could it be, when neither the law, the Crown, nor the even the Church condemned slavery as evil? By all outward appearances, Newton could be considered an upstanding Christian in mid eighteenth century England.
It was in prayer that the truth broke through, not in a flash, but over time. Like the prophet Samuel before him, Newton learned that “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Finally, after many years, the things that broke God’s heart began to break Newton’s heart. He became a dedicated abolitionist, a trusted friend to Wilberforce, and, of course, the author of Amazing Grace. With that first prayer from a stricken ship, a whole new story was set in motion. The slave-trade lost its most upright merchant, and the world gained its most beautiful hymn. That’s the power of prayer, and saving a ship was the least of the miracle. Prayer can be subversive in that way. It doesn’t always advance our ambitions, but sometimes can even undermine them and set us in an entirely new direction.
As we part today, and get back to the hectic pace of day-to-day life, the best we can hope for is that we’ll never be too busy to meet in secret with our Maker. I hope we’ll each find time as well to enjoy some great stories — and better still, in daily prayer to follow the story that God has written for each of us. It’s the perfect story, and we’re His collaborators, needing help even to help ourselves. But we can always start by saying, in the words of Sir Thomas More:
“The things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us the grace to labour for.”
And then, our lives will all become a story worth being told.