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Vol 37 No 4


Brian Lewis

Philip Malone MSC

Liz Hepburn IBVM

Tom Ryan SM

Neil Pembroke

Bruce Duncan CSsR

John Ryan


Kevin Mark


Prayer - answered?


MANY TIMES WHEN pushed for a phrase that describes me I have opted for ‘the restless believer’. Somehow that seems to sum up my passion for the Good News which is the Gospel, along with my conviction that we are currently struggling to discover the ways to proclaim it in our modern world.

I had been in Chicago for two weeks at the invitation of Fr Jim Gill, the Jesuit priest psychiatrist who headed up The Jesuit Educational Center for Human Development and The Christian Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality. They had been heady days investigating both human and spiritual development and it is possible that I had wandered into that place where one begins to feel one has a grasp on what life is all about! Maybe I was in danger of losing touch with what Eric Seal (another great Christian psychiatrist) once referred to as the serendipitous nature of the human experience. Anyway whatever the explanation, the following is an account of what happened on my way home. It is mainly an account of a series of facts that are helping me understand the effectiveness of prayer and how the Spirit leads us to pray from within (cf Romans: 8/26).

It is Sunday July 1st 2001, I head to Chicago’s O’Hare International airport to embark on my nineteen hours in the air and another four or five hours in the various airports on the way home to Canberra. I check in my one suitcase with United Airlines and am told that except for clearing it through customs in Sydney it will be booked through to Canberra to await me there on the morning of July 3rd. All boarding passes and seat allocations are issued for the three legs of the flight and with a passing remark that the first leg to San Francisco will be delayed by fifteen minutes, I made my way through Security to enjoy the stimulus of a people-saturated terminal and relax as I prepared for departure. When purchasing my tickets for this trip I had questioned the tightness of the connection at San Francisco but now with everything almost on time I felt no apprehension whatsoever.

During one of the perpetual announcements I vaguely noted mention of some inclement weather somewhere in the West which was causing some delay to incoming flights. A check of the departure board showed my flight details unchanged and I continued to enjoy my search for a few last minute souvenirs. As it got closer to my scheduled departure time, for some unknown reason I again checked the departure details and was shocked to see that my flight was now showing a new and greatly delayed departure time. My mathematical mind quickly went to work and I calculated that this new schedule would make the San Francisco link to my 11pm Sydney flight doubtful. My cautious temperament led me towards the United Customer Service Counter where I joined the usual endless queue that surround such places. An official who was moving along the line no doubt to help those for whom time was running out, suggested I go back through Security and approach the main ticketing counter near where I had made my entry earlier. Here again the queue was daunting and from being relaxed and grateful that all was going well I was beginning to feel anxious.

Some years back I missed a West Coast connection and experienced the subsequent hassle with an eventual twenty-four hour forced stop-over. My memory of that time along with the fact that I was already a day behind in my planned schedule made me want to avoid what suddenly I was beginning to see as a likely scenario. Like an invitation that comes from ‘nowhere’ the idea that this was an appropriate context for prayer came to me.

When finally I made it to the counter a pleasant and efficient young woman agreed that my concern was well founded and quickly she set out to ensure that I could exit the country that evening as planned. After several calls she managed to get a seat on an American Airlines flight that promised a credible connection to my United flight from San Francisco to Sydney. As my baggage had already been booked onto the now delayed flight my helpful ticketing officer warned me that though she would send a message to the baggage area, there was little chance that my suitcase and I would be travelling together on any part of this re-arranged trip. She did console me by saying that United would eventually get it to me in Australia hopefully within the next few days. I recalled gratefully that I had taken travel insurance and made my way to the airport train which would take me to another terminal and another carrier.

As I approached the American departure lounge I immediately noted that there was little action and that the scheduled departure time for this flight had also been delayed and was now listed as 7.30pm. Again my mathematical mind went to work and while there was now the added complication of changing terminals again in San Francisco there didn’t seem to be a need for panic; concern! yes, but not panic. When eventually we boarded we were looking more to a 7.50pm departure time; still no need for panic!

As we sat waiting to pull back from the gate a cheerful voice came from the cockpit welcoming us on board and as if as an after-thought, he mentioned that there was some slight irregularity and that the mechanics were coming to do a safety check which he anticipated would not delay us for long. By now I was very conscious of time and became toey as the minutes began to tick by. I began to berate myself for making the move from my scheduled United flight which had been delayed to 8.30pm; at least it would be into the same terminal and if I were to be stranded for the night in San Francisco there would not be any confusion about who I would have to deal with.

The idea that this was a context and a time for me to pray had already taken on and my prayer started to move onto a new level. I had become aware that I was due to arrive home on the feast of Thomas the Apostle; the one whose doubts had brought us a very salutary instruction on faith. As I put this mounting problem before the Lord something deep within began to energize me to further action. Uncharacteristically I pressed the hostess call button and another helpful woman agreed that I had a problem. She consulted the bursar who ushered me off the plane to talk to the ‘heavies’ in the terminal. With cool efficiency they snapped into gear and were soon able to tell me that there was no plane in Chicago that could get me to San Francisco on time.
They advised me that all things considered it would be best to stay with their flight which would surely be taking off shortly.

Convinced now that I would be staying at least another night in the USA I returned to the mechanically stricken plane and continued to wait. By this time the cabin crew were sympathetic to my predicament and my call to prayer was becoming even stronger. The connection to St Thomas and faith had moved me to that other text about “faith being able to move mountains” and all in all I was into feeling inspired. It was a very uncanny experience. The awareness of a prayer ‘rising up within me’ deepened and I was clearly aware of a call to trust and not give up. Something was happening here and I felt called to go along with it for whatever reason. Was this an example of the Spirit within leading me forth to prayer?

Eventually we moved off from the terminal at 9.00pm and the captain informed us that he hoped to have us on the ground in San Francisco at approximately 11.10pm. The helpful bursar noted with surprise that this was a shorter flight time than previously advertised; with a touch of irony he said that we could be on the ground in San Francisco in time to see my United Sydney flight disappearing over the horizon.

As we got underway the bursar returned and we spoke of the possibility that the Sydney flight might be delayed and I even ventured to suggest that a call to United might get them to hold the flight for a time for me to make the connection. The bursar (I wish I had got his name!) agreed to phone ahead and check on the departure time but was keen to assure me that no airline would hold a plane for a passenger. He explained the staggering economics of why pulling away from the gate on time was critical. Sadly his phone call confirmed that the United San Francisco to Sydney flight would be departing on time. He also found out the departure gate for that flight and commented that it was quite a distance from where we would disembark.

The uncanny idea of continuing to pray and not give up persisted. When, against all expectations, the captain announced that we had made up time, I was further energized. By now the bursar was thinking with me and for me and unsolicited came to tell me that he had decided to move me to a seat towards the front of the plane prior to landing and arrange for someone to be at the door to give me directions to what was now the all important Gate 94.

We landed and taxied with a short teasing interruption and as I made my way from the plane I had a few short moments to make what I calculate to have been something like a three kilometre run to Gate 94. As I was pointed in the right direction my mind and imagination went back nearly fifty years to days when I was in training for the Inter-School 440 yard dash. My sixty-five year old body groaned, stumbled and protested as I tempted sanity and decorum and headed towards Gate 94. A couple of times the directions I had turned out to be ambiguous; I had to take a punt and head in the direction I judged to be the most likely.

Even when I arrived at the sign announcing Gate 94, I wasn’t there really because unlike the other lounges this one was downstairs. At the bottom of the stairs I turned left instead of right; my one false step! When I finally turned and saw some people at Gate 94 I had a glimmer of hope. I presented my boarding pass only to be told that the gate was closed and the plane had departed. The people I saw were the United staff mopping up after the turmoil of a 747-400 Jumbo departure. Almost speechless after my run I started to ready myself to accept the fact that now it was a question of sorting out where I would spend the night and what arrangements could be made for the morrow.

The dream that had kept me going over the last four or five hours now seemed to be just that, a dream. Yet just as I was coming to accept the inevitable I noticed something was happening. Indeed it was this that I had been prepared for earlier in the evening when, while praying, I recalled the phrase that more things are wrought by prayer than this world ever dreamed of and was reminded of the fact that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in Hong Kong could result in some effect being experienced in New York!

Again it was an uncanny feeling. An attendant working on a computer nearby had picked up the name Ryan and blurted out ‘his luggage is on board’. That ‘long-despaired-of luggage’ had somehow made it to San Francisco and was now aboard the Sydney flight and was about to take on a significance that was beyond my wildest dreams. How it managed to get there raises some mysterious questions that are hard to answer.

The woman who had my boarding pass started to sing out to those who were clearly her superiors and began typing into her computer. Unbelievably she was yelling out ‘Call the plane back, we must get this man on board’. There was immediate confusion yet somehow her words had a life of their own and as if moved by a power beyond them, the little group initiated a manoeuvre not unlike the ‘moving of a mountain’.

The concerned attendant had now become my Guardian Angel, she printed out another pass in the process of finding me a new seat number on Flight UA 863. Then she pointed me to a nearby door and soon moved from her side of the counter to join me there. Through the door we were at the beginning of a long corridor which eventually led to a dark opening sealed off with a colored rope at the point where the corridor spilled out into nothingness. There we stood at the end of the gantry awaiting the unlikely return of a fully laden Jumbo. Could this be true? As we waited we talked. She told me that it was my luggage on board that led to the recall of the plane. She also said that the delayed 8.30pm United flight from Chicago along with some other flights had all failed to make the connection. She added that if I were to miss this flight there would be big problems for me as their Sydney flights for the next evening were already fully booked.

As we stood there facing into the darkness I had a vision of Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet facing out from the bow of the Titanic. I’m not sure what the connection with the Titanic was but I suspect it had something to do with the notion of impossible possibility.

Eventually as if from a dark nowhere the nose of the huge Jumbo came into view and I saw the people behind the windows of the first class section. Obviously some of these passengers were very unhappy about having to return from their journey to take-off. When the huge door opened I was directed to my seat which took me the full length of the plane and back a few rows on the other side. Here the passengers were more accepting, even the couple who were banking on a spare seat between them and now found it taken by a mysterious stranger who though he traveled in Economy merited the recall of a departing Jumbo.

We waited for the best part of an hour before Flight 863 eventually departed and I was on board. By the time we arrived in Sydney it was Tuesday morning, the feast day of the doubting St Thomas and we were only half an hour late.

This trip home stays with me a very special experience and has led me to rethink my understanding and appreciation of prayer. The overall experience so impacted on me that I felt I had to witness to it in some way and so it is that I decided to record it in this story.

John E Ryan is a priest of the Diocese of Sandhurst. He founded the St Peter Centre for Clergy Education and with Fr Vince Dwyer introduced the Ministry to Priests and Ministry to Religious programs to Australia.