Archbishop of Canterbury
There have been lots of wonderful answers to prayer over many years, including recently. One I remember was as a 15-year-old sitting in chapel with the prospect of three frightening tests that day, for which I had done no preparation, and praying that if I got through it then I would do anything for God. I did get through and did nothing about it, except forget about God.
Another was praying about whether I should ask my future wife to marry me: I was sitting alone by a canal in Holland. I felt I should, did, and she said yes. It was a wonderful decision.
The most recent was when I was going to see some incredible work done by a group of young women helping trafficked sex workers. I prayed that I could find, in my complete bafflement, something hopeful and good to say to the young women with whom they worked. Some words came, and for at least one woman I know much changed. That was the best Christmas gift of that year.
I had scrounged a lift on the third-from-last plane out of the dying enclave of Biafra at the end of the Nigerian civil war. Behind us on the airstrip, the last two aircraft waited in the pitch-black night. My lift was on a clapped-out old DC-4 flown by its owner, an Afrikaner really called Van Der Merwe. The destination was Libreville, Gabon. The fuselage was overloaded with dying Biafran children and Irish nuns.
After takeoff, also in pitch darkness, somewhere over the Niger delta, the port outer coughed and gave up. We struggled on three engines towards the ocean. After turning east towards Gabon, the starboard outer began to cough and splutter. It was clear the old rust-bucket would never fly on two and was sinking towards the sea on three. Van Der Merwe began singing hymns in Afrikaans. I prayed quietly, convinced it was all over. Outside, the moon on the water came closer as we nearly skimmed the ocean.
Fortunately, the French had built Libreville airport close to the shore. The dangling wheels almost clipped the sand dunes, then we were over concrete. At that moment the coughing, spluttering engine gave up the ghost and the crippled aircraft dropped on to the tarmac. The Afrikaner stopped singing and began to thank the Almighty. It would have been churlish not to follow suit.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster
Prayer comes readily when we are distressed or in danger. Agnosticism falls away. It has been so for me. Many years ago, I prayed intensely at a time of crucial decision-taking. I was puzzled and distressed. Should I really be a priest? Slowly, clarity came. I decided with a sureness and a trust beyond reason. My prayer was certainly answered. Since then, in 47 years as a priest, even in the hardest of sorrows and confusion, never — yet — have I had a sense of being abandoned by the Lord, never losing the deep stability of that decision.
I prayed fervently that I would do well in my GCSEs. But I also worked ten hours a day for three months straight until I was dreaming in French, could recite the Aeneid, knew 50 reasons why the Schlieffen Plan had failed and could recognise an isosceles from 300 yards. It was graft, not God.
When I was ten I used to pray that I would be really, really popular at school. My prayer was so successful that every day I had to choose between five different groups in break who were all desperate to play with me. The choice was agonising. Leaving four groups disappointed — and cross — taught me to be careful what you pray for. Popular figures have greater enemies; mind you, there’s always Trump. Then, when I was a single, despo actress-writer type of person of 31, I decided I simply had to have a baby. So I started praying as an early insurance. I also attended a few mind-and-body weekend workshops to help with any shortfall of charisma — as a ‘top-up’. After three years of praying, I did indeed find myself not only with child… but also a loft conversion, a relationship and much larger clothing.
One morning, in early February 1952, the nation learned that the King had died. At school assembly we were told by our headmaster to stand in silence and think about this sad event. I was not sure what to think. We were then instructed to pray for the King. This was more like it; I prayed that he would come back to life, although even to a seven-year-old this seemed a long shot. After another long minute of silence, the piano struck up and we were exhorted to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, which was not an encouraging sign for those who had prayed for the King and were waiting for God’s response. Next day we sang ‘God Save the Queen’ again. This meant only one thing — God had listened and His answer was no. My confidence in the power of prayer was thus considerably undermined. It took me about five years to get used to the lyric change in the national anthem.
Never having experienced anything that I would attribute to a supernatural cause, I am obliged to confess that my prayers have always gone unanswered. But I only have to read George Herbert — rector of a small church near where I grew up, and therefore a poet who has always been particularly precious to me — to regret this:
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
I would rather not dwell on past prayers. And God’s treatment of Job — killing his ten children, all of his animals and covering his body with boils, purportedly to test his faith — suggests that it might be better not to try His patience with idle, end-of-year prayers. Isn’t Randy Newman on to something in his ‘God’s Song’ — ‘I burn down your cities — how blind you must be/ I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we…’ So, modest wishes instead. In 2017, let’s not claim we’re on ‘a rollercoaster’ while describing some inconsequential personal drama. Or that some achievement ‘hasn’t sunk in yet’. Never again preface arguments unnecessarily with ‘going forward’, or ‘to be honest’. Avoid predicting that something ‘won’t happen any time soon’. If you find yourself emotionally in ‘a good place’ it’s better not to let on about it. Reject as dishonest all institutions public and private who respond to scandals by parroting the PR line that they ‘take your concerns seriously’.
Author and headmaster
I prayed as a young man for a wife I could love all my life and who would make me happy. I never thought anyone would want to share their life with me, so often had I been chucked by girls. In Joanna, my prayers were answered 100 times over.
Every day I pray for my family to be safe and for us to stay close together — the Lord’s hand has been good to us and has steered me safely home through so many trials and tough moments. It isn’t always the big dramatic stuff but it is a prayer often answered and for that I am always so grateful.
‘High life’ columnist
I believe it was Christmas 1971, and I was up in Phu Bai, north of Danang, south of Hue. It was a miserable time, I was lonely and my career as a journalist was going nowhere. There wasn’t even any fighting going on to keep one’s mind occupied. On Christmas Eve I went to a Catholic church and was the only round-eyed man there. I prayed rather hard and after that, as by miracle, all my prayers were answered. I became a roving correspondent for an American weekly and have never looked back.
Once I read about a wishing lamppost that answered wishes in a place where nobody believed in them. My wish for a first female president didn’t come true and I am still wishing the UK will take in Yazidi sex slave survivors, that Russia will stop bombing Aleppo and that all children can go to school. Ten years ago in a muddy field in Helmand surrounded by Taleban, I wished more than anything not to die. Somehow, miraculously, that wish was granted. But I have never wished anything more than when my son was born 11 weeks early weighing less than a bag of sugar and in a scary intensive care unit linked to an array of tubes and flashing lights. Now he is taller than me and applying for university. If I had a wishing lamppost I would thank it every day.
Most of my prayers have been answered; I’ve been very lucky. When I left college, I wanted to make and design my own product and sell it all over the world which is exactly what I’ve been able to do. I’m just enormously grateful.
My mother loved to show films for special occasions with an old-fashioned home screen and a cine camera. All the chairs set up like a cinema. The Lady Vanishes at Christmas, Oh, Mr Porter for New Year and assorted Agatha Christies for birthdays.
For my tenth birthday, I asked for a cowboy film. I was a little obsessed with cowboys — the drama, the heroism, the good vs bad. As my guests sat down and the movie flickered to life I saw that not only had my mother found a cowboy movie but miraculously the hero was a cowgirl. Annie Get Your Gun. I had got my wish… until she opened her mouth.
It was a musical and of course, with a girl as the lead, it would have to be a musical. It ended with Annie, by far and away the best shot on set, deliberately losing a contest to a cowboy, because it was ‘better to win the man than the competition’. I was horrified. My mother had only been trying to send me a gender-correct message to her tricky ten-year-old tomboy, but I was incensed. How could anyone deliberately lose or be thought a heroine for losing? My wish today is for my daughter to know that nothing should stand in the way of her ambition. Not only should she try her best to win, but never imagine it was chivalrous or feminine to stand aside for a man. There should be no need to call a girl a tomboy. Actually, best of all I would like her never to need role models. Also, could we get Benedict Cumberbatch to do the male version? Andie Get Your Gun.
A white lawn, an apple tree in its centre. A little boy stares out to a frozen lake. Through the reeds, not so far away, a cathedral’s towers thread the mist: Ely, where Hereward the Wake had held out a thousand years before against the Conqueror; an isle until the fens were drained. And there he is, red against the snow, a handsome fox. Still, silent, we look at each other. I don’t know how long. A chapter of peace. The boy’s parents have now descended and joined him, one at each shoulder. And then the fox is gone. The following mornings only his pebbled footprints are found. And so I prayed that my solitary companion would return and indeed, one year later, there he was again: a faithful friend; confirmation of order in the world. Somewhere, I had been heard — and I thought he smiled at me.
A few years pass and now a ten-year-old is on a bench next to a girl looking out across the same white Christmas lawn. We have not kissed, just held hands. A neighbour, she is emigrating after a summer of declared love. Later, pressing her face against a misty window as she was about to be driven away, she promised to return and I prayed it would be so. But my wish was banished. Where is she now? And those I have lost? I know that if I pray hard enough then, in a way I cannot explain, I will see them all again.
Raised by nuns, a Catholic mother and a robustly atheist ex-Presbyterian father who said one should ask no favours, certainly not of invisible divinities, I am a bit conflicted. Prayers of thanks and for the dead are fine; but as a theological nerd, I guiltily know that demand-prayers are a debased form, not far from that loopy ‘Cosmic Ordering’ philosophy endorsed by that great thinker Noel Edmonds.
So yes, I have prayed. Usually at sea in small sailing-boats, at night, in Atlantic gales. And we have always been delivered to a safe harbour. So far.