The year is 1948. A woman is praying; her husband of 23 years is ill with tuberculosis, and he may die. The wife makes God a promise: if her husband is spared, she will go to Mass every day.
Her husband recovers. His wife keeps her promise, and attends Mass every day. For almost fifty years, until they have to move into an assisted living facility, and she can't go anymore.
She is 99. Her husband is 101. And on Sunday, surrounded by family and friends, they celebrated their 83rd wedding anniversary.
You can read more about them here (free registration required) (hat tip: The Drudge Report).
I don't know the Vails at all, though I think it would be a privilege to know them. So I don't know just how Mayme Vail's prayer went, that day back in 1948. But I do know that she must have been worried, heartsick about her husband and unsure whether God would choose to spare his life, or whether his time had come. When she made her promise I'm sure that she was prepared for the worst, for God to say "no," and call Clarence home. Catholics raised in those days knew their faith pretty well, so I don't think Mayme thought she was 'bribing' God by offering this act of love and sacrifice, if only her dear husband survived his illness.
What I do believe is that over the course of the next forty-eight or forty-nine years Mayme's attendance at daily Mass proved two things: her overwhelming love for her husband, and her deep and humble gratitude for God's grace in letting Clarence live. To have gone to Mass every day in grateful thanksgiving for a year, for two, for five or even ten would be wonderful; the fact that she went daily for almost five decades goes way beyond wonderful. There must have been times when it was difficult to get there: they had six children, after all. There must have been days when walking to Mass--the article says she mostly walked--in Minneapolis weather must have been a severe penance; but Mayme was there, offering her thanks, a faithful witness to the power of God in her life. Like I said, I don't know the Vails, but this example of love and fidelity, of a prayer answered and a promise kept, is so inspiring.
How often do we approach God in prayer as if we were placing an order over the telephone? "Let's see, Lord, I'll have one serving of patience, one dollop of well-behaved children, an order of family solidarity, some deep-fried job stress resolution, and a side of special intentions. And put wings on that!" (Angel wings, of course.)
We're pleased with ourselves for having asked for such good things. We impatiently await their arrival. If we don't get them we're sulky and disappointed. We never wonder whether God didn't see right through us, and hear exactly what we were really saying all along:
Lord, make me patient, and quickly. Otherwise these children You've saddled me with and this husband of mine are going to drive me crazy, and I know You don't want that. While we're on the subject, how about reforming these kids? I'm doing my part, after all, so get to it--You're the only one Who can get them to quit this winter bickering they've started. They're only doing it to drive me crazy--see above. Let's see, how can I word this request to get my husband on board with my plans and forget his own? Oh, right "family solidarity." That's a good one. Family solidarity--if Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. Know what I mean, Lord? And help things work out for my husband's job, because I'm really getting bored hearing about all his problems. Now, let's see--oh, I can't be bothered remembering all the people I'm supposed to be praying for. "Special intentions." You know what they are. Good, I'm done.
God hears our prayers. All of them. Not just the ones we've dressed up in Sunday words and presented as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths. He knows what we are really saying; He hears our inmost thoughts. He knows how selfish and lazy and self-centered we can be. It's not at all surprising that he doesn't answer our prayers, sometimes; it's more surprising that He ever does.
But when a grief-stricken wife pours out her love for her husband and offers God a pleasing and humble promise--and then keeps that promise for almost fifty years--she shows us the way. If we would have Him answer our prayers, we should approach Him in much the same way--seeking His will, unafraid to ask for what we really want, hopeful that He will allow us to have our prayers answered in the way we desire, but prepared for His will to differ from ours, and ready to offer Him grateful love and faithful service whatever happens.