Have you ever been so buried with worry or sadness that you couldn’t move?
I guess some people go running, or chop wood, or get busy doing anything to take their mind off their trouble, but I tend to freeze. My mind shuts down except the part that circles around the problem, and around, and around, and around….
The cycle is endless and it seems the longer it continues, the deeper I get and the harder it is to get out. So I’ve learned to recognize the signals, and take a page from the book of I Samuel — and Hannah’s experience, in particular — to help me out.
“Is any one among you suffering?” James asks in chapter 5. “He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. … The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (vss. 13, 16 NABRE).
Hannah, mother of the biblical prophet Samuel, shows us both these things: prayer in suffering and praise in good spirits (her powerful prayer of gratitude is echoed generations later in Mary’s Magnificat).
Do you know Hannah’s story?
In a nutshell, Hannah was miserable. She had a loving husband but no children, and her husband’s second wife, who did, played that for all it was worth. Penninah tormented Hannah, took every chance she had to provoke her. It got to where Hannah couldn’t eat or join in family celebrations. Not even her husband could pull her out of her sadness.
So what did Hannah do? She took all that pain and hurt and longing and poured it out to God, finding comfort even before she was answered. As I wrote in Becoming Women of the Word, How to Answer God’s Call with Purpose and Joy:
“…it was the intensity of her longing, rightly focused toward God, that set her heart straight. St. Augustine writes, ‘God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give.’ Here is one of the clearest pictures in all scripture of what that kind of prayer looks like. Hannah gives us a pattern for faith-filled prayer” (p. 94).
I’d like to share with you the pattern I found in Hannah’s story, using the classic fact-finding questions of Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? and How much? Each of the answers below is excerpted from one in Becoming Women of the Word, pages 100-104; they appear here by permission of Ave Maria Press:
Hannah’s Legacy: a Pattern for Faith-Filled Prayer
WHO to pray to . . .
Hannah goes to God in her pain. She could have gone to Elkanah with her problem, or handled it herself…. Hannah, however, went straight to the source of life, certain that God was able to help her.
. . . and WHO is praying
Hannah knew who she was in relationship to God. Three times in one verse she called herself the Lord’s “maidservant” (1 Sm 1:11). She didn’t make demands or imagine herself to be specially deserving, only approached God in her need as a servant who depends completely on her master.
WHAT to pray
Hannah poured out what was on her heart. She didn’t complain, nag, blame, demand, excuse, or grumble. She simply told God where it hurt and asked if he would give her a son, expressing how grateful she would be.
WHEN to pray
Hannah poured out her petition when she was feeling the pain of her distress, getting up after the meal to find an appropriate place for private prayer. And she “continued” to pray, which suggests her prayer was persistent.
WHERE to pray
Hannah prayed “before the Lord” [where she knew he could be found,] at Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant was. … We still seek his presence for private prayer: whether it’s in the “secret” of a prayer closet (Mt 6:6); “where two or three are gathered” (Mt 18:20); or before the Blessed Sacrament, where he is truly present in the Eucharist.
HOW to pray:
from the heart . . .
Hannah didn’t just log her request and move on. She prayed fervently, completely, from the depths of her heart.
. . . with our bodies . . .
Although Hannah was speaking from her heart, “her lips moved” (1 Sm 1:13). … involving our whole being lends our prayer power.
. . . and in faith, trusting God
Hannah knew God was able to help her, believed he would hear and understand her need. … She trusted him enough to leave her burden there at the altar, placing the whole problem in his hands to decide as he saw fit. She then left, without knowing God’s answer, and worshiped.
WHY to pray
In the end, Hannah’s plea for a child was not about self-gratification. It was more about self-sacrifice. … Hannah prayed for one son who she could offer back to the Lord. … It’s when we seek God’s kingdom and delight in him first, that our needs and desires are filled.
HOW MUCH to pray
Hannah “continued praying before the Lord” (1 Sm 1:12), even after making her vow. … Hannah’s continued prayer opened the door for her request to be answered. As she waited and trusted, she was rewarded.
and THEN WHAT?
Because God gave Hannah a son, it’s tempting to think about her song of praise, That’s easy for you to say. What if he doesn’t give me my desire? What if he doesn’t fix my problem? It’s easy to lose trust in God if we focus on the fact that he might say “no.” Never mind that he has our ultimate good in mind, we’d like to think we know best what will make us happy.
But God is not a cosmic vending machine that dispenses whatever we want. He’s our loving Father who wants our greatest good; above all, he wants us to know and love him. He knows what is best for us, and in what time—and he will also make up to us what is lost because of sin, whether our sin or the pain and brokenness and injustice that comes from sin in our world. As Christians, we can lift our eyes and set them on eternity where sorrow and pain and death will have no place and God will wipe away our tears (see Rv 21:4). In Jesus, pain does not have the last word; his love has the last word.
After Hannah’s time in prayer, she left in peace and her face was no longer sad. “Transformation of the praying heart is the first response to our petition,” according to the Catechism, 2739. The next morning, Hannah worshiped and went home with no idea of the outcome, only knowing that the Lord had heard. She was able to leave in peace because she had truly given her problem over to God and had faith he would answer in his time and in his way. She found solace in his loving care.
“Prayer is the best weapon we possess. It is the key that opens the heart of God.” — San Pio de Pietrelcina
Let’s be grateful for the example of Hannah as we learn to turn in our need to the God who loves us.
© 2020 Sarah Christmyer. Excerpts from Becoming Women of the Word © 2019 Sarah Christmyer. Reprinted with permission of Ave Maria Press, the publisher.
For related posts, go to Sarah’s main Blog page, scroll down to categories and browse through “Prayer & Lectio Divina.”