Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Praying is ‘All We Can Do’

“All you can do now is pray.”  The doctor's posture, facial expression and tone of voice conveyed the message with perfect clarity: our loved one was going to die.

“I'm sorry I can't help, but I'll pray for you.” The neighbor intended to offer spiritual uplift, but the words told us that prayer was something different from “help.”

“You can pray for a miracle, if you want, but he's so stubborn nothing else will change him.”  The weary family member mentioned prayer as a sort of last resort, but the choice of words expressing only despair.

There are dozens of ways to say it, but we are all subject to a prejudice in our society.  Simply stated, the prejudice is that “real help” consists of “doing” something: disbursing money, serving food, swinging a hammer, removing a gall bladder, giving a ride or providing some other physical assistance.  Prayer is something we do when we can do nothing else or, as a friend once put it, “When all else fails, we pray,” not expecting it to change anything, but because it seems somehow appropriate.

It's a kind of functional atheism, with more than a touch of superstition thrown in for good measure.  It betrays a mindset that prayer is a leftover from a simpler era when, we think, people were more gullible than they are today.  Persons living in this mindset often hold that when the going gets tough, it's best to offer some kind of prayer, just in case there's anything to it.

This is not the attitude we meet in the pages of scripture, however, nor among those who have cultivated a strong prayer life.

I remember being taken aback one day shortly after entering the ministry, when I tried to explain to a member of the church I was serving that I could do very little to provide him concrete physical assistance with a problem he had.  "I can't do much.” I said, feeling embarrassed, "I guess praying for you is about the best I can do.”

A big smile lit up my friend's face, “Prayer is always the best you can do!” he exclaimed.

He was right, of course, and I realized in that incident how insidiously the world's skepticism insinuates itself into our understanding of what constitutes prayer.  We may recall Tennyson's words, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,” but when we find ourselves up against long odds or a persistent problem, we often behave as if nothing were ever wrought by prayer.  For some that may be because they look at prayer in functional terms.  If it is something we do, then what is the result?  More plainly, will it work?  Did we get what we wanted?  If not, then why do it?  These are questions that come naturally to us as persons accustomed to finding concrete solutions to problems. 

I buy tools designed to let me accomplish specific tasks.  I don’t pound nails with my screwdriver, and I even have a small assortment of hammers for different nailing jobs.  If a tool works it works, and if it doesn’t I use something else.  If I’m printing a long word processing document I use my old laser printer, and if I’m printing a photograph I use the newer inkjet printer with the high quality color inks.  The right tools to solve whatever the current need might be.  This gets us through our daily tasks, it helps us to be productive and it forms our understanding of how to cope with life.  It’s this last bit that can lead us to misunderstand the purpose and working of prayer.

At heart prayer is entering into mystery.  We come before God and seek a presence.  We ordinarily use words, but sometimes we come in silence.  We bring needs, our own or others’ and while we may bring specific requests we are trusting God to “handle” the needs and requests.

Sometimes the outcome may surprise us.  Soon after the Second Vatican Council I noticed that the Roman Catholic Church no longer referred to “Last Rites,” but was instead referring to the sacrament as “Anointing of the Sick.”  I asked a priest who had served many years as a hospital chaplain what this meant.  I wondered if this was simply a case of substituting a bland euphemism for an unpleasant expression that people found depressing.  Quite the contrary, he explained.  It seems that over the years hospital chaplains had noticed that a significant number of patients who received the “Last Rites” not only didn't die, but actually recovered their health.  The change in terminology came about to reflect a growing realization that prayer sometimes releases a power or energy that is not ours to command, but is nonetheless “real” and “concrete” in every sense of the words. 

In the years since, I’ve become convinced that when we pray for another we stand with them in whatever the need may be.  This is magnified when in our praying we are part of a community that agrees to pray together, and whose members learn to involve the others in the process.  The efficacy of prayer does not depend on concrete “results,” and much of the time we don’t know with certainty what our prayers “do.”  On some occasions, however, we see the outcome with astonishing clarity, and as we make such prayer a part of our normal practice we find that it lets us into a realm quite different from the world of functional thinking that forms the context of our workaday lives. 

Neither of these worlds cancels the other, and each has its place.  Here’s a challenge: notice your own speech habits in this matter, and ask yourself what they tell you about your understanding of prayer and the role it has in serving others.  Then, the next time you have a chance to help another, try prayer along with the rest of your assistance, and see what happens.  Once again, prayer is a communal enterprise.  If you are moved to share some of your understandings I’ll be glad to pass them on if you send them to hmacmullen@gmail.com.

Howard MacMullen
© February 2014

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