There's a practice in my variety of Christianity that involves special prayers that are said throughout nine consecutive days. While this isn't strictly biblical, there's nothing stopping anyone from making their requests, promises and gratefulness known to the Creator throughout a period of X days and expecting, with the requisite Christian confidence, an answer within that time frame.
Looking at it from an anthropologist's point of view, it makes sense. You can't humanly keep praying for the same thing forever. Ending your series of praying sessions at a set date conditions the mind to accept the reality you are eventually confronted with-- an answered prayer, or God "telling you by his silence" that you're screwed. You give yourself the sense of making a bargain with the Lord, a time-bound chance to fulfill your side of it. And through this practice you give yourself a series of rationalized excuses for when God "chooses not to come through."
You messed up your side of the bargain somehow--
It wasn't the right time--
It's not what you need--
and my favorite--
"Your limited mind cannot see all ends."
It's not fair to rag on the Almighty that way because if you subscribe to Christianity in almost any of its organizational forms, then you must believe that he's got a plan that transcends human wisdom. I don't mean to. Much.
It's just that I feel insulted when I see what the leaflets require you to do-- Pray this six times every day, leave nine copies at the chapel every day you're on the novena. I recognize that a covenant means squat if you don't fulfil your end of the bargain. From a magical thinking standpoint, you lose something of value (time, blood, vitality) to bring about the desired effect--
God please make me rich--
Jesus bring my baby back from the middle east--
Lord please forgive me--
Lord please ask her to forgive me
With the conditions a standard leaflet sets, it's all too easy to slip into the trap of being overly procedure-oriented to the detriment of sincerity in your prayer.
Then there is the claim on the prayer leaflets. "This novena has never been known to fail." This last makes me want to choke the guy who wrote this.
Hey, a method, a technique, a magical ritual-- and yes, a prayer-- fails if it does not produce the desired effect. You cannot rationalize your way around that, even if you "cannot see all ends."
I am someone who has spent a large total of hours supine on the floors of sacred places, weeping into the carpet or my clothes and looking like an idiot. Praying. There is only one reason why I haven't been placing copies of novena leaflets with disclaimers in chapels. And that's because I've seen them work. I've seen prayer work.
Except, seemingly, with what I want the most.
Like everyone else, I've seen my share of prayers answered with "No." Unlike everyone else, I've bothered to spend time thinking about it.
Again, it isn't fair to say that God isn't holding up his end. And it's probably true that he has a plan. It's just not comforting to tell myself these things when I see my friends' spirits or fortunes lift and I still feel like the walking wounded in the Valley of Tears.
In the end, prayer isn't always about rubbing the magic chalice and watching a piece of bread become the Jesus-genie to grant me a million wishes.
I'm going to continue believing that (oh Gawd, rationalization!) prayer is a dialogue between God and me and the irritating silence is a part of this communication, not an indication of his unwillingness to give me a break.