What Happens When Our Prayers Don’t Work?

Maybe we’re seeking the wrong answers

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

“Why didn’t the prayer work, Mom?”

This was the question my seven-year-old daughter posed to me last week. We were in Banff National Park in Canada, on vacation. Two hours earlier, we’d sat closely together, reciting a prayer to the Virgin Mary known as the Memorare, in the hopes of helping a hiker who had collapsed on the trail ahead of us. Shortly after we finished praying, the man died.

When it happened, we were on the last full day of a short and sweet family vacation in the Canadian Rockies. We’d spent every day exploring the natural beauty of the area, and on this day, we were hiking an easy, popular canyon trail that led to two waterfalls.

Photo: Tom Kelly

The sun was shining, the crowds were manageable, and the walk to the first waterfall was gorgeous. Our kids were doing great, so we impulsively decided to extend the hike to the second waterfall.

It was worth it — the upper falls were just as beautiful as the lower falls, and the kids were proud of their efforts. We started back down the trail in high spirits, looking forward to the picnic lunch we had planned next.

A few minutes after we began the return trip, a man came toward us on the trail, his hand outstretched in a warning. “Someone is not well. Not so good for the kids to see,” he said. Over his shoulder, I could see the form of a man lying to the side of the paved trail, several feet ahead.

Despite the warning, I didn’t feel any serious cause for concern. I assumed the man had simply fainted from overexertion and would soon sit up, drink some water, and be fine.

I also don’t ascribe to the idea of sheltering kids from seeing challenging things, but we decided it wouldn’t be so bad to wait for a moment to give the man some space. By that point, several people were clustered around him trying to help.

We stepped to the side of the trail, and my kids and I huddled together as I explained that someone wasn’t feeling well. We closed our eyes and imagined sending love to the injured man, while my husband walked over to take a closer look at the situation.

At some point, it dawned on me that there was a woman sitting and watching the events, with her arm wrapped tightly around a little girl. While I wasn’t really worried about the idea of our children walking by someone in temporary distress, I also couldn’t fathom why this woman would want her child watching the proceedings so closely, either. Then a terrible thought hit me: What if they were the man’s family? What if the little girl was his daughter?

At the same moment, I suddenly recognized the rhythmic pumping of someone performing CPR on the man lying on the ground and I realized the situation was much worse than I had assumed.

My immediate instinct was to run directly to that little girl, offer to scoop her up and bring her to my children so that we could all help her by distracting her. But I hesitated, not knowing if it would be right to approach them. Instead, I grabbed my phone and quickly Googled the words of the Catholic prayer, the Memorare.

I am not and never have been Catholic, nor do I consider myself Christian. Instead, I am a student of the Sacred Feminine, and I research and write about ancient spiritual traditions that once honored a feminine form of God. From my studies, I’ve learned that the Virgin Mary has many of the same qualities of the ancient Goddesses who preceded her. I’ve also learned that certain bits of Goddess lore seem to stretch across geographies, time, and spiritual traditions.

For example, one of the first lessons I learned from my first teacher of the Sacred Feminine was this: If you call on the Goddess, she will always answer your call. Later, I read this very same idea ascribed to the Hindu Goddess Durga. Recently, I’d also discovered that the same sentiment is included in the Memorare invoking the Virgin Mary, which is why I’d decided to look up the words. If we couldn’t help in any other way, we could at least pray, and a guaranteed response to our call felt like it was desperately needed.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with my seven-year-old daughter on a log to the side of the trail, we quietly recited the prayer together:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.

Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

I didn’t really even have time to formulate any specific words for help, because as soon as we stopped speaking I looked up and there stood the woman with her daughter. My husband, who had apparently had the same instinct, had called her over to tell her that her daughter could stay with us while she went back to the man, who we learned was her husband.

We also learned that the mother’s name was Maria, and her daughter’s name was Ivy. My children immediately befriended Ivy, who was five years old and on holiday with her family. My husband gave all the kids some trail mix, and we asked Ivy as many questions as we could think of to keep her attention with us. The kids jumped in too, eagerly sharing their names, favorite colors, and favorite movies.

Over their little heads, I could see someone continuing to perform CPR on her dad, who Ivy had told us was named Tim.

Sometimes, on perfect sunny days, life breaks us wide open with the immensity of its pain and its beauty.

Eventually, the kids began playing on the trail just behind us, away from Ivy’s dad. The CPR went on and on — too long. When it finally stopped, I knew that Tim hadn’t made it. He’d just died, right here beside this beautiful canyon, in front of his wife and in the presence of well-meaning hikers from around the world, while his daughter played hopscotch with my children.

Sometimes, on perfect sunny days, life breaks us wide open with the immensity of its pain and its beauty. For as long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing Maria lying beside her husband’s body in the dirt, clutching his arm and stroking his hair and face as she said her goodbyes. And I will never forget the look on Ivy’s face after her mom had told her that her father died. “I’ll never see my daddy ever again,” she told us, wide-eyed. Then she proclaimed to my kids, “It’s too scary. Let’s play.”

My daughter seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation more than her new friend or my four-year-old son. When I told her that Ivy’s dad hadn’t made it, she burst into tears. After a long hug, she bravely wiped her face and went back to play with Ivy because she knew it would help Ivy feel better.

Taken earlier on our hike. Photo: Tom Kelly

The kids continued their games while Ivy’s mother waited for a helicopter to arrive with a medical team. The medical team, too, tried to revive him, but it was too late. They took Ivy and her mother down the trail via helicopter, then came back for her dad’s body.

And then we somberly hiked back down the hill, and went to have our picnic as planned.

Later, when my daughter asked me earnestly why our prayer hadn’t worked, I knew what she meant. We had prayed sincerely, but Ivy’s dad had still died.

My heart is still broken for this family, not only for the loss they’ve endured, but for what lies ahead for them as they try to rebuild their lives. I find myself in tears about them daily. And yet I cannot say that our prayers failed. Everywhere I looked on the trail, Spirit, in whatever form you might choose to envision them, was present.

She was present in the not one, but two doctors who happened to be on the trail and worked so hard to save Tim’s life. She was present in a hiker, someone who appeared to be a stranger, who stood with his arm around Maria as she told Ivy that her father had just died.

She was present in another hiker, who, upon witnessing Tim lying on the trail, immediately dropped his pack, stripped off his jacket, and rushed to help. She was present in the woman whose name I will never know, who wrapped her arms around me in the tightest embrace when I finally allowed myself to cry. “We were praying for him,” I whispered into her shoulder. “I was too,” she whispered back and squeezed me tighter.

She was also present in the beauty of my children, playing games with Ivy and trying to offer her whatever comfort they could. “Your dad’s spirit will never die,” my daughter reassured her new friend earnestly, while my son nodded behind her. “Maybe he can come back and visit you someday. I bet he will.”

At our essence, we are all just expressions of divine love.

I think of everything that had to happen that day for us to be on the trail at exactly the same time as this family — how we had stopped that morning at a bakery that just happened to be closed, how we decided at the last minute to extend our hike to the upper trail, how we’d stopped here and there throughout the hike for water, or to rest our legs. How all those moments added up to us being on the trail at the exact same time as this family, and how my children were the only kids on the trail around the same age as this little girl.

When my daughter asked me about our prayers not working, I remembered what I’ve learned not just from my studies of the Sacred Feminine, but from many other spiritual teachings throughout the years — at our essence, when all of our emotional baggage and stories are stripped away, we are all just expressions of divine love.

I’ve never seen such obvious examples of divine love than those moments on the trail. Everyone who was present that day instinctively stepped into their best, highest nature. Collectively, it seemed as if our hearts were blown wide open with love for a family that none of us knew, yet all of us recognized as our own. And in that naked love was the presence of something or someone so much larger than all of us. It doesn’t replace the tragic loss of life, and it doesn’t erase the pain that I know this family is feeling. And yet, something about what transpired on the trail felt undeniably holy.

Something else incredible happened on the trail that day, something that’s hard to put into words. Shortly after Tim died, I felt what I can only describe as a shift in energy. Everything in the canyon — the wind in the trees, the rushing of the water — suddenly felt enhanced and amplified. Just for a moment, it was so powerful and electrifying, so full of love, that I thought I might sink to my knees from the enormity of it. It was only a brief moment, and then it was gone. But it was enough to convince me that wherever he was, Tim wasn’t alone, either.

Afterward, at our family picnic, we talked about what had happened with our kids as best we could. I cried in front of them. My husband and I told them it was okay to feel sad, and it was also okay for us to have fun for the rest of our vacation — in fact, it was the best way we could honor Ivy’s dad.

I don’t know if we will ever know what happened to Tim, who we learned was just 45 years old when he died. We only know that one moment he was walking along just fine, and the next he collapsed and stopped breathing. We don’t even know the family’s last name, and I’ve changed their first names here to protect their privacy.

But I do know something for sure. Calling on a higher power, however you envision them is never an exercise in futility. She will come, always, because she is already here. She is present in the beautiful, beating hearts of the living, waiting to demonstrate the love and compassion we are capable of when we drop our illusions of separation and see each other for who and what we really are. And she is present in the formless, loving energy that receives us when we are gone.

She is always, everywhere, here.

I write about the intersection of ancient spiritual traditions and modern feminism. Host of the Home to Her podcast: https://www.hometoher.com/podcast

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