How an Unanswered Childhood Prayer Strengthened Me as My Mother Was Dying

When I was about 5 years old, someone gave me a small, iridescent butterfly pin with hinged wings that formed a tiny clasp. I loved how it held securely to my shirt so it would never get lost. I loved that even with my small fingers I could make its wings move, like the wings of a real butterfly. I still remember how much it delighted me.

One summer evening in the backyard, I started spinning in a circle with the butterfly in my outstretched hand, then releasing it into the air to let it fly. (And if you’re having trouble getting into a story about a ceramic butterfly, think of it as a miniature stealth bomber with nuclear capability.) I then searched in the grass until I found the landing spot of the butterfly (or miniature stealth bomber with nuclear capability), secure in the assurance that toy butterflies do not really take flight, and that I was in control of this little portion of my world. I did this over and over with the delight only a five-year-old can find in such a simple game.

Then tragedy struck. I spun just as I always had, released the butterfly just as I always had, and searched just as I always had, but all I found in the grass was more grass. In violation of all my hard-won knowledge about the rules of How Things Work, the butterfly seemed to have truly taken flight. I searched for what seemed like forever, more and more frantic about my careless loss, but to no avail. I was devastated.

My mother, seeing my distress, offered, “Wendy, why don’t we say a prayer. I’m sure Heavenly Father knows where the butterfly is.” Of course! And so, I prayed. Then, full of faith, full of hope, I resumed my search. And in all the years we lived in that house, I never found the butterfly.

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I learned early that prayer is not a magic wand we wave over the problems of our lives. It is not a bell we ring in a shop to let the owner know a customer is waiting. Genuine prayer involves more than performing a ritual, completing a duty, gaining public speaking skill, or learning some secret trick for getting our way. Prayer is how we express our love for God and invite His love to find us.

Prayer, then, is first and foremost a vehicle of relationship. When Alzheimer’s disease robbed my mother of almost every capacity, including the ability to recognize her own children, some of her last comprehensible words were, “Heavenly Father, please help me.” When my mother no longer knew my name, she knew God’s, and she knew He knew her. Her relationship with Him was deep and instinctive, forged over a lifetime of seeking and listening to His voice.

When so much about finding the lost things we search for—whether things, or dreams, or help, or people—seems to hinge on the quality of our relationship with God, we would be foolish to give up on that relationship too quickly, even when it is hard, even when we aren’t sure if God still knows our name, even when He doesn’t come through for us as we think He should. As is the case with any mature relationship of genuine love, our relationship with God must accommodate both getting what we want and not getting it, times of closeness and times of distance, feeling fulfilled and feeling disappointed. God has to trust us to keep trusting Him even when He doesn’t point out the location of all the things we pray to find. Betrayals we’ve experienced elsewhere can echo so loudly in our relationship with God that we end up covering our ears against Him, sometimes even without realizing we’re doing it. We may even deliberately run from God, afraid of our clumsiness at love, or overwhelmed by the length of the journey from where we are to where He is, or mad enough to think we want the distance. Often we want to be found, but we aren’t sure He’s looking.

Our relationship with God, like any relationship, goes through stages and cycles of both closeness and distance, injury and repair. Heartaches, doubts, and trials do not affect us equally. Our stamina and skill for relating to God are impacted by how skilled we are at relationships in general, how tolerant we are of emotional intimacy, how humbly we can approach our weaknesses, how many different tools we’ve developed for connecting, how preoccupied we are with the often necessary busyness of life, how comfortable we’ve become with forgiving and being forgiven, and how deeply we’ve been hurt or betrayed in the past. There are many reasons we keep God at a distance, all the while thinking He is the one who chooses to stay away. . . .

Learning to let in the love God offers us seems to be the work of a lifetime. Although I have not found all my lost butterflies, I am increasingly in awe of God’s kindness, patience, and willingness to come where I am, grieve with me for my losses, and encourage me to find my wings. I can honestly say these ideas have helped me deepen and broaden my relationship with God and find greater access to His constant companionship.

Lead image from Mormon Newsroom

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Learn more about how you can strengthen your relationship with God in Let God Love You: Why We Don't; How We Can.

What have you learned about yourself from your past and current relationships? We learn who we are and what we can hope for from others in the context of our relationships with family, friends, and others around us. Some of what we have learned and experienced may even blind us to what is really true about God, leaving us both yearning for and afraid of closeness with Him.

Coupling the teachings of Christ and His prophets with gospel-oriented ideas from her counseling background, Wendy Ulrich probes faulty assumptions that we may bring to our relationship with God. By understanding and healing these false beliefs and then following the teachings of Christ about how we can ''come unto Him,'' we learn to see God more accurately, rely on Him more trustingly, and become strengthened in His love.

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