Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some thoughts about prayer

Yesterday I had a letter from a teacher friend about an experience she had of praying for a student who had been very angry with her for a grade she had given him plus some feedback she given him that he didn’t agree with. Though the student wasn’t her enemy, he seemed to regard her as his enemy. Recalling Christ’s advice about praying for enemies, she decided to begin praying for her student. The next few weeks in the classroom were difficult – his anger was obvious. “But God gave me an incredible amount of compassion for him,” she told me, “and also showed me that I should have communicated with him more sensitively. One day he came back to class to pick something after the other students were gone. He was obviously not feeling well, so I just said that I was sorry and hoped he would be feeling better soon. He then began to cry. We talked for about an hour. He shared many things with me including his rejection of the God he was brought up to believe in – the angry, wrathful one. I mainly listened, but also shared a little of my own journey.”

My friend ended up giving him a book that she thought might help (Mountain of Silence). They’ve had more conversations. Things have changed dramatically, not only in the classroom, but in the student’s life and faith.

It’s distressing to recall how many times in my life I have failed to pray, or have even refused to pray, for people who ought to have been high on my prayer list.

It was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who first impressed upon me the significance of praying for others. She carefully kept lists of people she had been asked to pray for, or felt she had a duty to pray for.

In the period I was closest to her – she was then in her early sixties – I became aware that she spent a good deal of time every day on her knees praying. One afternoon I looked in the prayer books she left on the bench of the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm and discovered page after page of names, all written in her careful italic script, of people, living and dead, for whom she was praying. She prayed as if lives depended on it. The physician Robert Coles, of the Harvard Medical School, credited Dorothy’s prayers with the miraculous cure of his wife, who had been dying of cancer and suddenly recovered.

Dorothy also kept a list of people who had committed suicide and prayed for them daily. I once asked her, “But isn’t it too late?” “With God there is no time,” she responded. She went on to say how a lot can happen in a person’s thoughts between initiating an action that will result in death and death itself – that even the tiny fraction of a second that passes between pulling a trigger and the bullet striking the brain might, in the infinity of time that exists deep within us, be time enough for regretting what it was now too late to stop, and to cry out for God’s mercy.

This attentive praying for others, including many people for whom she probably felt no love at all (love in the emotional sense of the word), was one of the aspects of Dorothy that startled and challenged me. Not that I was very quick to pick on her example – it took years before I started keeping my own prayer lists. Now Nancy and I normally make use of our prayer lists before going to bed.

When Jesus gave his challenging command about loving one’s enemies, he said, at the same time and in the same sentence, to pray for them. Who are the enemies for whom we should be praying? The word “enemies” comes from the Latin word, inamicus, which simply means non-friend – people whom one would love never to see of hear of again or whose death probably wouldn’t grieve us.

I’ve found that in some cases it helps to write out a special prayer for a person one has very urgent needs or from whom I am seriously estranged – for that person’s healing, well-being, recovery of love, recovery of faith, etc – and use it two or three times a day.

I’ve often struggled with the very basic question of why we need to ask God for anything? Doesn’t God know our needs far better than we do? What need can God possibly have for appeals from me? And yet it seems, precisely because God isn’t a Calvinist and isn’t working from a script in which the future is foreordained, that prayers do matter. In any event, praying for anyone creates new threads of connection, new spaces, new possibilities.

– Jim

note: The photo was taken after a Vespers service at St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

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Steve Hayes said...

Your story of the teacher and the student reminded me of meeting Adriaan Vlok last week, and hearing him tell his story of repentance and reconciliation and washing the feet of his former enemies -- I've put the story on my blog at Truth, reconciliation and smelly feet � Khanya.

Else M Tennessen said...

Thank you for these thoughts on prayer. I often feel overwhelmed with the amount of folks I need to pray for, or who need prayer. Can you talk about how Dorothy covered all these names (surely she didn't pray her books of names each day)? This post inspires me to pray even more...

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

I wish I had thought to ask Dorothy for advice about intercession. I was young and too shy about asking such questions. But in our practice at home, apart from occasional spontaneous prayer that may occur during the day, the main time of prayer for others is just before bed, when Nancy and I normally have a short period of prayer at the end of which we pray for others, using lists that we keep. We have a list of people we pray for permanently, a list of people in more urgent need, and a list of people who have died. We have worked it out so that we pray half of the permanent list of the listing one day plus the urgent list, then the other half the permanent list the next plus the urgent list, and the third day prayer for the dead. The lists -- even the "permanent" list -- is revised and pruned from time to time. Names and added and removed from the "urgent" list more frequently. In some cases -- a friend very ill or close to death, etc -- we use prayers from a Book of Needs that we keep in our icon corner.