In the course of the many tributes for Robin Williams this week, I was reminded of a powerful scene from the film Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon stars as Will Hunting, a young, troubled genius who in the course of the story is professionally counseled by Williams’ character, Dr. Sean.
Unlike the other therapists, Dr. Sean actually confronts Will’s initial smart aleck defense mechanisms, and after a few unproductive sessions, Will begins to open up. One of these breakthrough moments happens when Dr. Sean acknowledges Will’s brilliance and yet challenges him to be open to the experience of life. As they sit on a park bench together Williams says, “If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him: life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. I’ve seen that….And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends.’ But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, and watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you, who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes that the terms ‘visiting hours’ don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause that only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.”
Moved by the poignancy and pathos of this soliloquy, Will begins to confide in Dr. Sean and eventually opens up to experiencing life.
In our Gospel this week, Jesus challenges us to move beyond simply knowing about Him to actually knowing Him. At first glance, Jesus’ actions seem out of character. We might be surprised when Jesus ignores the Canaanite woman’s plea to heal her daughter. His responses, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and “it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” seem both dismissive and insensitive. But the woman’s response reveals His true intention. Undaunted she perseveres, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their
Jesus’ rebuffs actually elicit one of the Gospel’s great acts of faith and determination: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Faith comes alive through perseverance and determination. Just as Jesus ignores the woman’s initial request, there are
times when our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears.
As a priest, I am often asked, “Father, when I pray, God doesn’t answer me. I don’t always get what I ask for. Why doesn’t my prayer seem to work?”
While there are many possible ways to respond, in this Gospel Jesus implies that we can fail at prayer because we become easily discouraged when divine response is not obvious and immediate. Prayer is not magic or simply knowing the right words to say according to a correct order, rather prayer “works” when it establishes a relationship. It is not enough simply to know about God, but prayer opens us up to experience Him, even when we don’t have all the answers.
But St. Theresa tells us that prayer is “talking to God like a friend.” Prayer establishes a relationship that makes us vulnerable to God’s will for us. It puts us in contact with the one who knows not just what we want, but what we need. And there’s need all around us.
We continue to pray for those Christians in Iraq who are trapped in the violence and barbarity of cruelty. We pray for those who have lost a loved one, especially for those whose deaths are unexpected. We pray for those who struggle with depression and addiction in all its forms. As we strive to be people of faith, let us never give up hope that our prayers are heard by our merciful and compassionate Father, who will always give us what we need to remain in his love.
~ Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P.