Meditations from the Classics
Answers to Prayer
Virgil, Aeneid 6:42-76 (29 B.C.)
Entrance to the Cave of the Sibyl (photo by Alexander Van Loon)
The Sibyl, that woman of prediction and prophecy, lived in a huge cave hollowed out from the flank of Cumae’s hill in southern Italy. The Sibyl was a woman with connections. She could see into the future. The voice of the gods spoke through her.
The cave where her divine utterances could be heard had a hundred wide approaches:
“a hundred mouths from which there issue a hundred voices, the Sibyl’s answers.”1
Many people would approach the cave hoping to get guidance or answers to their prayers as Aeneas did seeking guidance for his voyage to Italy. But the doors were closed. Answers could not be had unless the Sibyl was particularly moved by the gods. If a seeker happened to be slow, for example, to pay certain vows or offer sacrifices, the doors would stay closed.
Occasionally, however, the spirits would fall upon the Sibyl. She would turn wild as she struggled with the god. The deity would often shake her and ride her until she fell exhausted to the cave floor.
Or as Virgil phrases it, the god would torment her until he “mastered her wild heart, breaking her in with a firm hand.”
And then, when the god had broken the wild woman, the answer would come. The hundred immense doors of the place would fly open of their own accord and her inspired responses would shriek forth from the manifold mouths of the sacred cave.
The prayer process is so different for the believer:
We face no cave with a hundred shut doors.
We don’t plead before a wild-eyed Sibyl.
We don’t toss coins or offer sacrifices on bloodied altars.
No, we just come simply and humbly to the one door of our heavenly Father. We knock with quiet confidence. And with kind assurances, He opens the door, greets us with love and answers our prayers.
“And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).
David R. Denny Ph.D.
1 Translation by C. Day Lewis. Original Latin text: “quo lati ducunt aditus centum, ostia centum” (www.perseus.tufts.edu).