Guideposts Classics: Michael Learned on Prayer

Guideposts Classics: Michael Learned on Prayer

In this Guideposts Classics, Michael Learned tells how she found her path to prayer.

Actress Michael Learned

People often ask me if in real life I’m anything like Olivia Walton, the character I portray in the television series The Waltons . Well, we do have some things in common, Olivia and I. I’ve lived on a farm, as she does. And, like her, I’m used to big, tightly knit families.

When I was growing up I was the oldest of six daughters, and now I’m the mother of a brood that includes three teen-aged boys, a tankful of fish, a bird, four cats and three dogs.

But while Olivia’s spiritual strength–a strength that surely binds the Walton clan together–is inborn and comes easily to her, my own is the result of much groping, and there are times when I envy Olivia the serenity and assurance that her religion gives her.

Take the matter of prayer, for example, surely a basic thing in religion, perhaps the most basic of all. For people like Olivia, prayer seems to be as natural as breathing. In good times or bad they turn confidently toward God, walking across a solid bridge of faith. But not everyone is so fortunate.

For some people, prayer can be full of doubts and question marks. Are we really getting through to Someone when we pray? Is every prayer really heard? How can we know whether or not it’s being answered? For a long time I wondered about such things myself.

I’m pretty sure that as a child I got off on the wrong foot where prayer is concerned. Nobody was at fault. It was just happenstance.

We Learned children lived on a 21-acre farm in Connecticut where we had a goat named Rebecca, pigs, rabbits and chickens. It was a wonderful place to grow up, in many ways not unlike Walton’s Mountain.

Directly behind our farm was a Catholic seminary. It was supposed to be off limits for us kids, but one Sunday morning, dressed in jeans as usual, my sister Gretl and I climbed over the stone wall separating our property from the seminary.

Curious as cats, we wandered around the grounds until a kindly looking priest spotted us. “May I help you?” he asked.

“We were just looking around,” I said shyly. “We live over there.”

The priest smiled at the two little blond girls standing barefoot before him. “Why don’t you come in and see where we live.”

Our family wasn’t Catholic, but I was intrigued by the seminary tour Father Coffey gave us. We met other priests, too, and almost every Sunday after that, one of my sisters and I would go visit there.

Most of the things kind, old Father Coffey told us Learned girls are forgotten now. But one thing he said made a deep impression. “God,” he assured us earnestly, “answers all prayers.”

This was welcome news to me, because I had been praying fervently that my parents would give me a new bicycle. I wanted that bike desperately, and when Father Coffey told us that all prayers are answered, I knew–I was just positive–that I’d get my bike.

In fact, as I climbed back over the wall that day, I could visualize a chrome-plated red Schwinn, complete with a basket on the front, already sitting in our driveway.

But the bike never came. Instead, my parents gave one to my sister Dorit. All I got, I remember vividly, was a pair of new shoes.

I was crushed. How could this have happened? Wasn’t God supposed to give me what I asked for? From that moment on, as a child, I think I tended to equate prayer with disappointment and to regard it with doubt and hesitancy.

This attitude was reinforced a few years later when a new job for my father took our family from Connecticut to Europe. We hadn’t lived there very long before I began to be passionately interested in ballet.

My one ambition now was to become a ballerina, and all day I’d dance through the house praying fervent prayers. Eventually an audition was arranged for me in England with the famous Sadler’s Wells ballet company.

While waiting for some word, I kept reminding God of my aching desire. “You know how much I want this,” I told Him.

But, to my despair, word came that the ballet company didn’t want me. I was too tall, they said, and besides my feet were flat. Again I was heartbroken, but more than that, confused. If prayer as heartfelt as mine produced only negative results, something must be wrong somewhere.

Resignedly I accepted an alternative–drama school. And gradually, although it was difficult at first, I began to forget all about being a dancer. I discovered a whole new fascinating world–the world of the theater. In drama school, moreover, I met Peter Donat, the man who later became my husband.

By this time the thought surely should have crossed my mind that an apparently negative response to prayer can be a form of guidance. But I was too busy with the demanding task of building a stage career. It was not a spectacular one, but I found it exciting and satisfying.

By 1972 I was acting regularly with a San Francisco theatrical company. I had been with them for several years and was content with my work. But there were personal difficulties in my life that I could not seem to resolve, and deep inside I was miserable.

Once again I called out to my dim concept of God for help, and once again there seemed to be no answer. Then in the spring of that year my agent urged me to go to Los Angeles and look into television work.

The idea did not appeal to me. I flinched from the thought of leaving my three sons and my home in the most beautiful city in America to enter a new and highly competitive field where I had little experience.

But my agent was persistent and persuasive, and so finally–still praying for relief from my problems–I went to Hollywood and made several screen tests, including one for the role of a rural housewife in an upcoming CBS television series.

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