When I was born, eighty-three years ago this week, I weighed ten pounds. The figure is hard to believe, especially if you had known me as a boy (“thin as a rake”, they used to say), and above all as a young Franciscan ascetic. I made up for all this, of course, later in life, thanks notably to the excellent cooking of my French wife as well as ten years living, lunching and dining in a private French château, served by guys wearing black bow ties.
I never realized that I had fat fingers, but I must have, because having once succeeded in losing ten kilos (which put me on the right side of the one hundred mark), I noticed one day that I no longer had my gold signet ring (noblesse oblige … ) on my pinky. It must have slipped off my formerly fat finger – but where ? Remembering where I last saw it, I knew it had to be inside the house or more probably the garden. The solid-gold ring was obviously of considerable value, even more so as it is the only ring in the family graven with our coat-of-arms (descendants of the O’Brien Kings of Thormond, as if it mattered). Now it was lost, no doubt irretrievably. Nonetheless I set about looking for it, in the grass, under bushes, in a compost heap, throughout the house, under beds, even in the kitchen garbage-can. My initial reaction to the loss had been, naturally, anger and frustration. But strangely enough, I soon had two other contradictory reactions. One was stoic acceptance. Spilt milk and all that. Even the thought that one day, years, maybe centuries, later, someone, on what had been my property, would literally strike gold. Small comfort. One thing was certain : I would never see it again.
The other reaction was even more curious. I thought of Saint Anthony of Padua, a canonized Franciscan to whom we prayed every day, in Latin, during our seminary training :
“Si quaeris miracula, “If then you ask for miracles,
Mors, error, calamitas Death, error, all calamities,
Daemon, lepra fugiunt The leprosy and demons fly
Aegri surgunt sani. And health succeeds infirmity.
Cedunt mare, vincula, The seas obey and fetters break,
Membra resque perditas And lifeless limbs thou dost restore,
Petunt et accipiunt While treasures lost are found again,
Juvenes et cani.” When young and old thy grace implore.”
Because Anthony had been reputed to have restored the severed foot of a young man, who, having kicked his mother, had heard him preach and had taken a tad too literally the Gospel injunction about cutting off your arm or leg if it caused you to sin, the Saint has ever since had the reputation of being able to restore things we have lost : limbs, golf-balls, wallets, eye-glasses, children, you name it – just about everything except perhaps virginity. It occurred to me that years ago I would have asked the Paduan to find my ring for me. Of course I didn’t now, but I was almost tempted to do so (What did I have to lose ? What if . . . ?, etc.).
Many Catholics still pray to St Anthony and other saints, many of whom have apparently specialized in providing particular favors. If Anthony can find things for you, St Blaise, for example – who had his head cut off – is just what the doctor didn’t order for curing …. sore throats. St Jude is not a specialist but a General Practitioner. He is the man you need in situations that are truly hopeless.
The great thing about praying to a Saint is that you don’t need his/her phone-number or even e-mail address. You just start talking in your head and he/she is on line immediately. Ready to help. Well, that all depends. Sometimes prayers are not answered. But the believer knows why : it’s for our own good ! Those celestial citizens, up there, have total vision, bound by neither space or time, of what’s good and what’s bad for us down here, in this vale of tears, lost keys and lost rings. Maybe if I found that ring and then regained the weight I’d lost and a few decakilos more, my finger would be so fat that I would not be able to take it off, and my finger would have to be amputated to stop my blood from clotting. Whatever. “Ask and you shall receive”, said Jesus. And if you don’t get what you asked for (like a kid asking Santa for a semi-automatic rifle), just praise the Lord and thank Him for not giving you something you really wouldn’t have wanted if you knew how dangerous it was. (OK, it’s a bit hard to console believing parents who prayed their hearts out in vain for the recovery of their dying infant. But faith implies trust; God knows best. You just have to believe, during the lowering of the little white casket into the ground, that God works in mysterious ways and that it’s all for the best; Thy will be done).
Prayer is for asking favors, sometimes trivial, often serious, like forgiveness and eternal salvation, for expressing thanks for the food in front of you, or for surviving that operation or for finding that ring or for making the rain start or stop, or, curiously, for praising the Lord and telling Him what a Great Guy He is. Some people find a fourth function for prayer. As with the Net and the telephone, it’s wonderful for just chatting, shooting the breeze, letting God know what you’ve been up to, what you’ve been thinking, what you’re planning to do (as though the Omniscient didn’t know all that already).
You fall on your knees, they say, when there’s nowhere else to go. But for many believers, prayer is not a last resort. It’s been their daily practice since childhood. Did you say your morning prayers ? “Angel of God, my Guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here. Ever this day be at my side etc.”. “Hail Mary, full of grace, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”. (She has a better chance of getting her Son’s attention and favors than you or I). “Our Father who art in Heaven, give us this day our daily bread” – a request that doesn’t seem to work too well in certain sub-Saharan countries and in some of our own mean streets.
We are touched by the innocence of children saying their night prayers, begging God to bless Mummy and Daddy and their new-born kitten. Some of us, however, are simply amazed at the continuing, childish credulity of adults who depend on God, His mother and His saints to find lost rings.
P.S. Miraculously (?), I found mine. I hadn’t asked for any divine, supernatural help. But I did find the need to shout “Hallelujah !” (“Allelu – ia”: Hebrew for “Praise God”) – which I did – and for one fleeting second, even the need to thank Some One – which I did not.