by Peter Blood
I noticed something not long ago which surprised me: Vocal intercessory prayer appears to be experiencing a major revival among liberal unprogrammed meetings! Friends may not recognize it as such. The language used to refer to it varies from meeting to meeting, but often runs something like the following: “Please hold my friend Jane in the light. She’s going through a really hard time with her youngest child.” Or, “My father is going into surgery on Thursday morning for his prostate cancer: I would ask you to hold him in your hearts during his surgery.”
This language may have a bit of a New Age ring to it. in my view, however, the same deep process is at work whether the speaker is asking others to pray for someone explicitly or asking them to hold her/him “up to the Light”. After all, what is this “Light” we are holding the person in or up to if not God?
Some meetings provide a special time for this kind of request or information sharing following meeting for worship. It may be called “twilight meeting” or “joys and sorrows”. Sometimes such requests are made during meeting for worship itself. They may enter in between introductions and announcements. Other meetings set aside a completely different time such as a prayer group or healing circle for sharing these kinds of requests.
All this praying for others started me reflecting on what it actually means to bring up another person’s needs to God. If you think about it, mentioning someone’s needs to God involves some deep paradoxes. The first paradox of intercessory prayer involves what theologians call “omniscience.” If you believe (as I do) that God knows all about us including all of our needs even better than we do, why should we need to tell God about our own or someone else’s special needs?
The second basic paradox of intercessory prayer involves the equality of God’s regard for all of her/his children. Since we assume that God loves all of humanity (perhaps even all of Creation) equally, it seems wrong that God would direct more healing or caring energy towards one person than towards another just because one—or even many—people are praying for that individual.
A great puzzle that many of us struggle with is whether God can, in fact, rescue individual humans from death, despair, illness or suffering. Because we believe God’s concern and love for us are without limit, we presume that God longs for each of us to be happy and healthy—to live long and, as far as possible, free from unnecessary pain. Nonetheless, there may be fundamental reasons why God either might not choose or might not be able to rescue individuals from suffering and death. This is something that both theologians and simple people of faith have been wrestling with for centuries. The reasons, however, why healing fails to occur in a specific instance are unlikely to include either God’s unfamiliarity with the problem or the shortage of supportive friends and family praying for the person in need.
Some people avoid needing to wrestle with these questions about the nature of God because they focus on another important benefit of prayer. This involves the good that flows towards those being prayed for from sensing the love and caring in the hearts of those who are praying for them. Certainly we know that people heal more easily and flourish emotionally when they know others care about them. There has been significant scientific research that suggests that those who are ill or in pain receive benefit from others praying for them even when they do not know by any direct outward means that others are doing this. My own family has extraordinary stories of hearts knit together across distance that is hard to explain: such as people who knew the moment that a loved one was dying at a great distance. As real and important as such indirect benefits of prayer are, I personally am unable to leave God out of the prayer process.
Another important reason why many of us pray is because we have been asked to do so: Jesus, Paul, Francis of Assisi, Fox and many other great spiritual leaders have enjoined us to pray for one another. But again, this cannot be an entire answer. It is important for most of us to understand the deeper reasons why we are doing something, even if we feel great trust in those who have asked us to do this. And so I am brought back to the original question, why am I praying in relation to the God who is at the heart of my universe and what am I hoping will happen as a result?
Perhaps when we pray for another what we are asking for above all is not for God to do something different with that person. God is already doing what needs to happen: loving that person, sending her/him healing energy and reassurance and hope. Perhaps what we are asking for is something to change in the heart of the person being prayed for—to enable her/him to receive the love and healing that are flowing already from God. In some cases this may involve being able to face suffering or death if that will be the ultimate outcome. Or it may be that what we are praying for is a transformation in the situation that will enable the prayer recipient to open up her/his heart toward God and toward the universe without fear and anxiety.
But when we pray we are also inviting a change to happen in ourselves. I learned this additional reason for praying for each other from my limited understanding of Al-Anon, the network of support groups for family members of alcoholics. Family members often discover that they have been trying for years to rescue a family member from her/his addiction. They sometimes find this a critical, though very difficult, step to ending their codependency with their loved one’s addiction. This can lead to finally reaching the point where they are ready and able to turn their loved one struggling with addiction over to God. When we pray for someone else we are asking God to work in that person’s heart for healing and change rather than trying to take on the responsibility for change ourselves.
So when we pray, we express our longing for God to work change in our own lives and hearts as much as in the heart and life of the person we’re praying for. We are asking for the capacity to let go of our own anxiety, fear, or the sense that we are ultimately responsible for our loved one. We are asking our community of faith to join with us in placing the entire situation at God’s feet: bringing about a graceful willingness both in ourselves and in the person in need to lean on God and let go of fear or whatever may be interfering with God’s powerful love touching all who are involved.
Peter Blood is a member of Mt Toby Friends Meeting in New England YM.
This article was originally published in the August 2000 issue of Friends Journal.