Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Efficacy of Prayer: A Real Life Adventure

C.S. Lewis wrote an essay called “The Efficacy of Prayer”, which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in January 1959. In that essay, he stated that “there is no rigorous proof” that when one prays for something and that thing happens, that the prayer is what made it happen. “The thing we pray for may happen, but how can you ever know it was not going to happen anyway? … In some measure the same doubt that hangs about the causal efficacy of our prayers to God hangs also about our prayers to man [e.g. asking someone to pass the salt or take care of your cat while you are away on a trip] … Our assurance is quite different in kind from scientific knowledge. It is born out of our personal relation to the other parties; not from knowing things about them but from knowing them. Our assurance—if we reach an assurance—that God always hears and sometimes grants our prayers, and that apparent grantings are not merely fortuitous, can only come in the same sort of way… Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.”

Judge for yourself:

On Friday, November 6, I began a two-day trip to the mud caves (see my previous posts here and here) with three other adults (Kevin, Leslie, and Joi) and five preteens (seen below, left to right, Phillip and Olivia, Emeth, Tabby, and Zinnie).

(The photos in this blogpost were taken by Joi Weaver.)

We traveled in two vehicles: a borrowed Jeep and a borrowed Ford F-250. After a drive of several hours we arrived at the turnoff from the asphalt of S-2 to the dirt road that begins the seven-mile drive that culminates at our customary camping spot at the site of the mud caves.

The Adventure Begins

After driving slightly more than a mile, the Ford (which I was driving) got stuck in sand. Although the road has always had sand on it, I have never seen it as unpredictable as it was this time. There were pockets of sand in ruts level with the hard road so that it was very difficult to tell where soft ground was located. The fact that we entered the road near twilight made discernment even more difficult.

At first I thought that it would be easy to grind out of the sand, but a little work and observation showed me that I wouldn’t be able to extract the vehicle without help. Putting branches under the tires and pushing didn’t help at all.

Things became more complicated when I noticed that the front tires were pointing in two different directions; the right tie rod had snapped. Aaargh! We weren’t going anywhere without some professional mechanical attention. The adventure had begun, especially since we were about 35 miles from the closest town and it was rapidly becoming dark.

So we unpacked what we needed for dinner, built a fire and roasted hot dogs. I surmised to the group that we would probably have to camp right where we were. I checked my cell phone and noted, to my surprise, that it had coverage. Just a short distance away, a little farther into the desert, coverage is nil. I called the Automobile Club for assistance, and was told that my policy did not cover me if I were “off road”. I replied that I was on a road that even had a name, although it was a dirt road; I wasn’t driving pell-mell across the desert. The dispatcher I talked to wasn’t quite convinced but said she’d send a truck out anyway.

We Prayed
So the nine of us gathered into a circle and prayed something like, “Lord, we are in your hands, as we are in all things. You know our needs. We pray that you will deliver us from our situation safely, quickly, and in the best way. Give us patience and build our trust in you; in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

Not long after that, a truck came toward us from the direction of the mud caves. A young man and his girlfriend stopped and asked if we needed help. When we told him our situation, he smiled and said that he could pull us out. “I do this all the time,” he said. “He does this all the time,” echoed his girlfriend.

He had a thick strap in the back of his truck, attached it to the rear of our Ford, and slowly pulled. We watched the front of the Ford to make sure that the wheels would handle the towing okay. As soon as the Ford was free of the sand, he stopped towing. We thanked him and I asked their names, “Chris”, he said, and his girlfriend was Katie. After some more pleasantries, they drove off.

Chris, I thought. Short for ‘Christopher’—meaning, ‘one who carries Christ.’

Next, the tow truck driver called me and asked for clearer directions about our location. I provided them and then said that I would meet him at the turnoff. Kevin and I got into the Jeep, turned around, and headed back toward the asphalt. Less than a quarter mile from the Ford, I quipped, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the Jeep got stuck in the sand?”

Kevin, driving, looked at me out of the corner of his eye, unamused. Within ten seconds were we stuck in the sand.

A couple of minutes later a pickup truck carrying eight or ten highly elated young people, probably in their early twenties, came by. Most of them were in the truck bed. Later, we came to call them “The Exuberant People”, for they had been partying and were probably heading into the desert for more partying.

When they saw Kevin and me standing outside the Jeep and looking disconsolately at our vehicle, they stopped and asked if we needed anything. When we explained our predicament, they said that they could help. They all leaped out of their truck.

In the meantime, the tow truck appeared in the distance, the row of amber lights atop its cab shining across the road in the dark. The driver was creeping forward and finally stopped where we were gathered. He dismounted and I approached him and explained how the situation had become more complex.

He shook his head. “This truck weighs eight tons. If I get stuck in the sand, it’s all over. I don’t think I can do this. I can’t even turn around.”

“We’ll do it!” shouted two or three of the Exuberant People. They asked to borrow the tow truck’s shovel and chains. The dug around the Jeep’s wheels, tied the chains to their own truck, and began to pull. About six people got behind the Jeep and pushed. Dusty sand spewed back into these folks as the Jeep inched out. When it was free, the entire crowd whooped, hollered, and danced as if they were at a football game and their side had just scored a touchdown.

Then Kevin drove the Jeep back to the turnoff, where the asphalt was. The Exuberant People followed him to make sure he made it there safely, and then drove him back to us. Kevin was electric with excitement at driving in the back of the pickup with a crowd of such party-driven young folks. During the drive he told them that I was a priest. Shocked, they immediately told Kevin that they were all going to hell because they do such bad things. “But you just did a good thing,” Kevin rejoined, and added, “besides, I bet the priest will pray to God to bless you.”

“Really?” they gasped, “He’d really do that?”

Meantime, I’d been talking to the tow truck driver. “Naw,” he apologized. “I can’t do this. I can’t go any farther. This truck weighs eight tons, and if it gets stuck in sand it’s all over.”

“That’s okay,” I said. I signed his work order, noting that his name was “Kris”. Hmm, I thought. Some form of Christopher, maybe. Again, one who carries Christ. He helped in the way he could but he was probably right. He backed out (literally) from our situation, with the parting advice that “there are professionals who can come get you out, but they charge $180 per hour.”

“Thanks!” I shouted, waving toward his vanishing headlights. The only professional in the group, a friendly fellow with good intentions and wanting to help, had been influenced by fear not to continue. Maybe he was right. I had no complaints.

By this time, an orange moon just past the full had risen over the black ridge of mud hills to the east. Its beauty made me catch my breath. Stars were appearing in the ever-darkening sky. It was cool but not too cold—just very pleasant. It stayed that way all night.

In the meantime, another truck full of young people had come by. These were about four or five young men. They’d passed the tow truck and stopped when they saw our crowd, and had overheard the final conversation. The driver leaned out the window toward me and confided, “He could have made it. He could have turned around on this road no problem. Well… where is your other truck?”

He followed me the three hundred yards to where the rest of our party had been waiting, and pulled to a stop. He leaned out the window again and said, “It happens that I am a Ford mechanic. I’ll look at it. I’m in no hurry. We don’t have any place to be, except our own camp.” He stepped down from the cab and lay on his back under our Ford’s right front fender. A friend held a flashlight for him.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a tie rod. Not really a big deal. You can get these in most auto parts stores and probably put it in right here. But…” He slid out, went over to his truck, and came back with some wire, plastic ties, and a couple of tools. “Hold the light right here,” he told his friend. I heard the sound of metal against metal. Our party as well as all of the Exuberant People watched. One of the Exuberant People called her mother to say, “We just pulled a priest out of the sand.” She was floating with excitement over our adventure that had become her adventure.

Five minutes later the fellow slid out again from under the Ford. “Alright,” he said. “You can probably drive it back to S-2. Don’t drive any farther than that. As long as you drive forward the wheels should naturally hold their position, but if you go backward, you’ll twist them.”

“Right,” I said, and got in, thinking that now I’ll have drive forward, find a place to turn around in the dark, and then come back. I was thinking about how the tow truck driver had said that if he turned around, he’d get stuck in the sand for sure. I started the engine and drove about ten feet.

“Wait a minute,” interrupted the mechanic, putting his hand on the door. “How about if I turn it around for you?” I tried not to appear too eager as I leaped from the cab. He managed to do a careful three-point turn, backing it up with a steady hand and then pulling it forward. “There you go,” he said.

I thanked him and everyone else, and felt we were all but delivered. I ensconced myself in the cab with four passengers and drove off, churning forward slowly but steadily and without changing speed once I got the vehicle going. The Exuberant People and the young men continued their journey along the dirt road. I thought to myself that we had prayed in a place far from civilization, and within an hour three different groups with a total of at least 15 people had shown up to help us, the largest group convinced that they were hell-bound.

I made it to the highway without incident. Both vehicles and all supplies were now safe at the roadside. I left my passengers and walked back along the road to meet the rest of our party who’d had to walk the mile or so from where we’d been stuck. Before too long our entire party was together again.

We set up camp and in an hour or so everyone was bedded down.

An hour or two later, the Exuberant People came roaring by, whooping and hollering as before. When they saw our trucks, they shouted, “Everybody okay out there?” I wasn’t quite asleep yet —I think—and I smiled wryly when I heard the shout.

“Yeah!” someone shouted back—I think it was Kevin.

“Great!” they shouted back. “Be sure you don’t drive that truck any more, or you’ll kill yourselves!”

“We won’t!” responded Kevin. “Thanks again!”

Their truck continued out to S-2, and off they drove with a series of whoops that didn’t stop, but merely faded with distance.

The Adventure Continues
On Saturday we woke to a bright day already well in progress.

After breakfast I tried to call the Auto Club again and arrange for a tow, although I didn’t know where I could have the truck towed. I toyed with the idea of driving the Ford “slowly” to Julian, the lovely gold-rush town we pass through on our way to the mud caves. A quick look under the truck showed me that I could probably have made it at least ten or fifteen feet before the makeshift job would quit on me.

I turned my cell phone on and noticed that 1) I had no coverage and 2) my battery was flashing low. I’d figured I had maybe half a charge before leaving home but knew that at the mud caves there was no coverage whatever, so I just brought the phone as it was, thinking I’d only need it for when I was driving.

I began to walk around the desert, looking for a place where the phone would work. I finally found a live spot and called for another tow. While the tow truck was on the way, I had to figure where to have the Ford towed. The previous tow truck driver had said that he didn’t know of any garages in either Julian (population about 1,600) or Borrego Springs (population about 2,500). Borrego Springs was somewhat back in the direction we needed to go, but on another road that swerved out of our way. I was a little familiar with Julian and didn’t know of any place there where I could get the truck fixed, so I decided to try Borrego Springs. The Exuberant People had shown me a flyer the night before and I had written down the phone numbers for both the Ranger Station and the Visitors’ Center in Borrego Springs.

The Ranger Station was closed. I called the Visitor Center and a man answered the phone. I quickly explained our situation and asked, “Do you know of any mechanic in Borrego Springs who is open on Saturday and does a good job?”

“It just so happens, I do!” he said. “Call Tito’s. He’s even got my car right now. He’s good and honest and inexpensive.” He provided the number. I called, and Tito said I could bring the truck in. I breathed a sigh of relief. I could now almost see the end of the tunnel. With every problem, we had to do three things: 1) get the facts about our situation, 2) consider our options, and 3) make a decision and act on it. There was always a solution.

An hour or so later the tow truck arrived and pulled the Ford onto the flatbed. Can you guess the driver’s name? No—it was Bobby. The two vehicles got started, caravanning north on S-2 to Borrego Springs. Bobby dropped us at Tito’s. Tito looked under the truck and said, “I’ll have to order the parts. I can’t get them until Monday.”

I agreed, of course, and then called a member of the parish who owns a home in Julian. Her daughter was one of our party. We made arrangements to meet someone who had a key to the place. With that, we had a place to stay.

There was only one more problem to solve. I asked Tito if he knew any place in Borrego Springs where I could rent a car. Not likely, I thought, in a desert town of 2,500 population.

“Sure,” he said. He called someone. “They have one car left,” he reported back. “I’ll drive you there.” There was an airstrip about the size of a band-aid a mile to the east. Tito drove me there where I made arrangements to rent a Saturn Ion—pretty banged up but drivable.

“Sometimes the ignition won’t let the key go,” said Louise, from whom I rented the car. She gave me a second key in case I needed it. In a few minutes I was back at Tito’s and we loaded up what we needed from the Ford into the Saturn. Then we drove into the center of town for lunch.

Then we drove the 35 miles or so from Borrego Springs to Julian, and arrived in the late afternoon. I made several necessary calls, noting that with each call the battery got lower and lower. We unpacked and, for the first time, relaxed. About 5:30 p.m. I said Mass for the group.

During the Mass we prayed, thanking God for delivering us from the desert and asking a blessing on all the people who had helped us—especially the Exuberant People, who had been so surprised that someone would pray a blessing upon them.

And then we ate dinner. After dinner, the kids watched the movie “Annie”.

The next day four of our number departed after breakfast, driving the Jeep back home where those four had commitments that couldn’t wait overnight. Leslie and I were left with three preteens—Zinnie, whose mother owned the house in which we were staying, and Leslie’s son and daughter, Phillip and Olivia.

My phone went totally dead in the morning, and wouldn’t even turn on. Leslie had been using her phone sparingly since its battery was also low. It became our only way to make or receive calls.

We spent the afternoon in Julian. The key to the Saturn did in fact stick in the ignition a couple of times, but I managed to work it loose after a minute or two of patient jiggling. When we got home at night, however, the key wouldn’t release from the ignition no matter what I did. After fifteen minutes I finally gave up, concluding that that was why Louise had given me two keys for the car. I could leave one in the ignition, lock the car, and then unlock it the next day with the second key. We watched “Annie” a second time that night.

The Adventure Continues Again
The next day we cleaned up the house thoroughly, repacked the car, and loaded ourselves into it, planning to drive to Borrego Springs to pick up the Ford about 5:00 p.m., which is the time that Tito said it should be ready. I turned the key, and the battery was the deadest battery I have ever seen. There wasn’t a sound, not even a click. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

I pursed my lips and borrowed Leslie’s phone to call the Auto Club for the third time. I had to walk to the end of the block to get coverage.

An hour later another tow truck showed up. A man who looked like Santa Claus in the off-season got out and opened the hood. The Saturn battery was unlike any I’ve ever seen, and it appeared to puzzle the driver too. After a few minutes he managed to put his cables into a workable position and asked me to try to start the car. Nothing happened. He repositioned the cables, and this time I got a click, but no more. He said we should just wait five minutes for the battery to charge and then try again. After five minutes the engine started.

He removed the cables, advised me not to turn the engine off for at least fifteen minutes, got into his truck, and headed out. We all piled into the Saturn again and reversed down the driveway. I realized immediately that the power steering had gone out. It was like trying to steer an elephant as I made the three-point turn to head toward the highway. (I found out later that it was a blown fuse. Easy to fix.)

I parked the car with the engine running, and flagged the tow truck driver down, who had made a U-turn down the street and was passing by us. He pulled over. I explained the problem and he responded that power steering was outside his area of knowledge. He asked for the owner’s manual, which I found. We looked up power steering and read that if there is a problem we should call the dealer. Fortunately the dealer’s number was in the front of the manual. He advised us to drive into Julian and park there, then call the dealer and ask what to do. He wished us luck and drove off.

I followed him and realized that driving wasn’t so bad now. Instead of driving like an elephant it was more like a hippopotamus as long as I was going fairly straight. I quickly conferred with Leslie and we decided just to try to drive all the way to Borrego Springs rather than turn the car off after just a few minutes and then probably need to call the Auto Club a fourth time. We made it along the winding roads through the hills east of Julian to the desert floor and all the way back to Borrego Springs without mishap.

We’re okay now, I thought. We’ll pick up the truck and be home in three or four hours.

The Adventure Continues Even More
We pulled up at Tito’s in the early afternoon. He came over and said, “I called your cell phone. I can’t get the parts until tomorrow. They have to come from another source.”

Leslie and I turned to each other and said, as we had before, “the adventure continues.” I used Leslie’s phone to check with Zinnie’s mother, who said we could stay a third night in her home. We’d turned her house key in and now had to arrange for it to be left for us a second time. I called the fellow who had it, and he was on his way out of town to get his car fixed! Well, at least that confirmed my suspicion that there were no garages in Julian. He said he’d be back later that day but not too quickly. Well, that was okay.

I used Tito’s phone to call the airport to see if they had another rental car by now, and they did. I drove the Saturn back and traded it for another one. The new one, equally old and banged up, only had a trunk whose lock couldn’t be worked with the key, but the engine worked fine. I took it. We had to open the trunk from inside the car.

We packed up again, had lunch, drove to the Visitors’ Center for an hour’s relaxation, and then returned to Julian. We ate dinner out, and then drove back to the home well after dark, where the key fortunately was where it was supposed to be. Then, leapin' lizards, the kids watched “Annie” for the third time.

Well, after that things went rather smoothly. The next day we cleaned the house a second time, drove into the Anza Borrego Desert for a picnic lunch on top of Ghost Mountain (see this previous blogpost), where Marshal South had lived with his family from 1930 to 1946, and then back to Tito’s in Borrego Springs. Work on the truck was completed about an hour after we arrived, we returned the Saturn to the airport, and drove home. We got back to the church about 8:45 p.m.

Lewis wrote, “In [prayer] God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary—not necessarily the most important one—from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is.”

We never made it to the mud caves on this trip, but we had an adventure that bound the travelers together as we worked to solve our problems. We saw our prayers being answered repeatedly; we are convinced that there were far too many “coincidences” for them just to be chance. Even a blogpost this long does not recount everything that happened and all the blessings we received. Yet there were no “miracles”, and we certainly had to live with the consequences of our decisions, such as not charging our phones before leaving home. At no time did any child wonder where we would eat, where we would sleep, or how we were going to get home. No one was ever afraid, no one got impatient. No one complained. Throughout all, there were confidence, joy, and deepening love for one another. We were blessed far more than we had even asked for in our prayers.


hotelbell said...

WOW!!!Can I go next time? I thougth there was a law about watching ANNIE 3 x's in one weekend. Seriously, I am glad you prayed! Tabby had a great time and she didn't want to come home in the first car. She is looking forward to her "DO-Over" mud caves trip. - PB

Heather said...

Awesome. I miss adventures with you, Fr. David! Glad everyone made it home in the end. :-)

Essay said...

Thank you for sharing, I like it worth reading.