Now there is a flaw in this syllogism that will be obvious to anyone familiar with the doctrine on intercessory prayer: some of the literal texts of scripture notwithstanding, when we pray for something, we have to pray in reality that God's will be done, not ours, and that what we want might be God's will.
Still, it's all very well to understand that intellectually; emotionally is a different matter, as a few of my friends and I have discovered of late as we beg God for a miracle, to heal a friend of ours who is dying of cancer. So I thought it might be worth reflecting on some of the things we know about intercessory prayer. I'd be interested to hear if people think I'm on the right track here.
Intercessory prayer is important and hard work
The first and most obvious point, it seems to me, is that we should pray for the things we want (provided that they are not inherently bad things). There are lots of scriptural passages that encourage us to put our needs and desires in God's hands, and we are told there are some things he is waiting to grant us if we specifically ask for them.
The second point is that we shouldn't expect that the answer will come without effort on our part, or instantly. In Scripture there are many occasions where prayers are answered only after fasting and other acts of penitence, at the time God chooses, not us.
That's not to suggest that our less fervent prayers aren't worthwhile. But it is perhaps like the difference between just signing your name to a petition, writing to a politician, and organising a protest of some kind: the first shows you support the cause and is valuable, but writing a personal letter or doing something more is often even more effective. Still, there are times when lots of names on the petition is enough to have the desired effect!
The third point is to keep in mind that what we are really praying for God's will to prevail, and for ourselves to move to that perfect place where our own will is subordinated to his. Our prayer has to be that of the agony in the garden - fervent willingness to accept the Cross if that is God's will. Of course, short of a special grace, it isn't always possible to know whether what we are praying for is what God wants, so sometimes we just have to keep trying until we get a firm no.
But the consequence of this is that we can't depend on getting what we want - we have to plan for all possible outcomes, and be ready to accept them. And in the case of someone facing death, that means doing our best to help them accumulate merit, and prepare to meet God face to face, even if we hope that time is not yet here for them.
God's will, saints and sinners
One of the biggest problems we all face when it comes to prayer is the inevitable questioning of why we don't always get what we ask for. Is it because of some sin or lack of fervour on our part? I don't think the answer to this is straightforward.
At one level, the answer is no, our own sin and fervour isn't the issue, because we know God uses weak instruments, both saints and sinners to advance his plan. In the end, when it comes to miracles it is whether God wants something to happen that determines whether or not it does. God granted Constantine the Great a vision and a great victory for example, that ended the persecution of the Church, yet Constantine himself was only baptised on his deathbed and was very far from being a saint at that point.
On the other hand, we do know that God is more inclined to grant favours to his special friends - that's why we appeal to the saints for help for example, why one of the tests of being a saint is miracles, and why in eras past the first and most obvious step to consider when looking for a miracle was to enlist the aid of some holy nuns in praying for it!
Yet even the holiest of saints don't always get what they want. My favourite story is of a monk finding St. Benedict weeping, and asking what the problem was. St. Benedict replied that he hadn't been able to persuade God to avert the destruction of his monastery of Monte Cassino (by the Lombards), all God would agree to was to save the monks. And indeed, the monks were saved, fleeing to Rome and influencing the young Pope St. Gregory the Great to become a monk, and eventually send out monk missionaries to convert England.
Why God grants miracles
Great trials in our lives are great gifts - they can cause us to accumulate merit and grow in holiness when we pick up our cross willingly and struggle to accept God's will for us. That holiness can then shine out to others, drawing them to him through our example.
But so too can miracles - perhaps all the more so when we first demonstrate our willingness to accept the path that God has chosen for us.
God does grant great miracles, so needed in our day, in order to convince unbelievers, strengthen the faith of believers, and advance his plan for us and the world.
So please add your petition to mine and pray with me for a miracle for my friend.