Prayer Shopping-Lists

Time was when priests complained about penitents who came to Confession with a laundry-list of sins they had committed. The internet age equivalent is the prayer shopping-list, sent by means of email or Social Media to people who are known to have a special interest in intercessory prayer, or who are assumed to be, in some way, professional pray-ers, the ‘prayer warriors’ of pious parlance.

For some years we have hosted a 24/7 email prayerline to enable people to ask for prayer at any time of day or night and be sure their request will be acted on. Many of the requests we receive are profundly moving, and I feel privileged to have such trust placed in the community and its prayer. In recent years, however, I have become a little uneasy. I’ve mentioned before the new phenomenon of people asking for prayer but also wanting us to write back assuring them of our prayer, as though our promise to pray was somehow not enough. Often this is accompanied by further requests: that we have Masses said (if only!); fast for a certain number of days or weeks for the intention named in the prayer request (hmn); undertake various devotions or say certain texts (very unBenedictine); send back relics or prayer cards (we can’t). Quite often people don’t bother with the prayerline at all but send emails to the monastery inbox or direct messages via Twitter or Facebook, probably not realising that their requests have less chance of being immediately picked up than when the prayerline is used. It is not this that troubles me, however, although I’ll admit that on occasion it can be irritating, it’s the nature of some of the requests themselves.

I believe everything we are and do is of interest to God; so I have no difficulty praying for a good exam result for x (though I would suggest that having done some work in the previous year would be a wise plan), or for a good husband/wife for y (though trying to be a good spouse oneself might be more to the point), or a successful house sale for z. The trouble comes when the prayer request becomes a list of financial/personal benefits desired or even demanded, as though the petitioner had a right to them, or worse, a list of curses to be visited upon the head of someone else. What do people think they are doing? How can we help them to a more mature understanding of what intercessory prayer is? I don’t know. If you have any ideas, please tell me, because I think it is something we need to address. It is on a par with those ‘last resort’ requests we receive: we’ve tried everything else, now we’re trying prayer. One longs to say, it’s all right, we’ll pray as though prayer were your first resort: God is the most generous of Fathers and he will hear.

I come back to things I have said many times before. Prayer is not magic, nor is it a short-cut to obtaining what we want, good or bad. Intercessory prayer, as I wrote on another occasion (see this post), invites God into the situation we are praying about but doesn’t presume to tell him what to do. We ask humbly, perseveringly, and with great trust, but it is for him to decide. To present God with a shopping-list of material benefits one wants to receive is, at best, childish; to call down curses on another is completely unacceptable, a travesty of prayer, an engagemenet with the devil. At the heart of all prayer is, or should be, profound reverence. No words are necessary — except maybe, sometimes, for us. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is enough.


19 thoughts on “Prayer Shopping-Lists”

  1. Exquisitely put, if I may say so, and I agree wholeheartedly that ideas of intercesory prayer should be addressed and better understood. When people ask me to ‘say a prayer for …’, I sometimes want to ask what they mean by that request, but it’s easier not to ask. People get uncomfortable, or they suppose that the very posing of the question indicates a failure of belief on my part (which is occasionally the case, to be fair!). I remember being asked for prayers for a good old ‘special intention’ (is that phrase still used?) and, when the petitioner’s request didn’t come about, I was told that ‘the prayers didn’t work, then.’ I admit to wondering about pilgrimages for special intentions, too, especially where the location tends to be a nicely far-flung and sunny location. Gosh, I’m getting curmudgeonly. You mentioned in one of your recent posts about a gap in knowledge about vocations issues, and here’s another gap. If anyone can begin to fill it, I suspect you can.

    • Ah, the good old ‘special intention’! I have always had a few reservations about those. We get quite a few requests for such and I just hope for the best; but if someone I know asks me, they tend to get a very straight look. The intentions we cannot voice are sometimes intentions of which we are ashamed, and sometimes rightly so.

  2. I can see that it must be most frustrating to receive inappropriate prayer requests when the purpose of your prayer line is as you describe “to invite God into a given situation”.

    I find it difficult to understand why or how people can feel that asking for a ‘magic bullet’ of prayer will help in some of the situations that you describe – it’s faith of a kind that I’m not familiar with.

    I find it hard to pray for things for myself, apart from asking for forgiveness, repentance being something that I believe I do need to pray about. But in general, my prayer is like your prayer line, asking God to be in given situation, or to bless or to send Grace into that situation. I’m unsure whether asking for material things is actually a valid prayer.

    A formal prayer, The Litany from the Book of Common Prayer often features – because it’s a powerful supplication in my view.

    • Asking for a material blessing, for oneself or another, is perfectly valid. What troubles me is when prayer is reduced to a list of material demands. I believe we need to help people to a more mature understanding, but I haven’t a clue how to go about it. I think prayer has become a kind of commodity (when it is not magic), and that’s the problem. By the way, the Catholic tradition of the Litany of the Saints is an ancient and simple form of intercession, but, as I said, intercessory prayer, like any other, needs few or no words. Jesu, help! fits most occasions.

  3. Thank you for this helpful post. I do pray for people quite a bit but really most simply, let your will be done in this life, in this situation…i do find it odd that people with no faith, or even opposition to the Christian faith, ask for prayer…its a privilege but frankly I find it perplexing…its as if they are telling me, well i don’s pray and i know you do, so…..You have written my thoughts on this exactly…I will continue to pray for the will and mercy of God for all….thanks for sharing this…

  4. I try to keep all my requests within the context of doing God’s will, so recent house hunting (done reluctantly because move essential following illness) my prayer was ‘you have made it clear to me that I have to move, so please produce the house the ticks all the boxes’
    God did answer this prayer, so many a prayer of gratitude. None of this changes the amount of decluttering required before the actual move end of August.

    • We must pray that you have the strength and health to cope with the move without feeling exhausted. Don’t want to depress you, but the decluttering goes on and on, like the Tennysonian brook…

  5. I think prayer is about process not outcomes. Am I willing to put myself consciously in the divine space? Then I might see the holy in whatever it is I’m experiencing. When I uphold others in prayer I think I am asking that they might become more aware of the divine and to let go of personal agendas. My favourite prayer is “help, thanks, wow”.

  6. Yes, as Sinead says, ‘exquisitely put’.
    ‘How can we help them to a more mature understanding of what intercessory prayer is? I don’t know. If you have any ideas, please tell me.’
    My suggestion is the one you were ahead of ! It’s, in addition to today’s post, put enquirers on to your equally fine post of 21 January 2011.
    That in turn shows what a resource you’ve provided by so carefully tagging your posts. ‘Search this blog’. Yes, I’ll say !
    (Of course, praying the Our Father attentively is unbeatable, too, ¿no?)

  7. Thank you for a thoughtful post. I worry sometimes about prayer. I have a list of people for whom I pray each day. I don’t ask God for anything for them I just lift their names and needs to God and hope that is acceptable.

    All I ever ask of others when I ask them to pray for me is that I have the strength through Christ to carry on with my life.

    I am a worrier though always wondering if I have done enough in prayer – I suspect this is a sin

        • A useful definition of scrupulosity is ‘An unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not. It is not so much an isolated act as an habitual state of mind.’ That neatly pinpoints scrupulosity’s modus operandi and its deadliness: fear. Fear is a great hindrance in the spiritual life, because it distorts our vision, makes us prone to misjudgement and cripples our actions. The best antidote is the gift of right judgement for which we are praying to the Holy Spirit during these days before Pentecost. However, we can take some practical steps such as making sure we are properly informed (educated in faith) and distinguishing between eg sin and obsession. Ultimately, we must take to heart the fact that God’s grace is stronger than anything else, and his grace abides in us.

  8. Your description of “inviting God into the situation we are praying about” reminds me of the story of the Curé D’Ars who asked the peasant what he said when praying before the Blessed Sacrament: he replied, “I say nothing. I just look at him and he looks at me”.

  9. Through the years of seminary and in several years of monastic formation, I saw the closeness that intercessory prayer can bring when paired with actively acknowledging the presence of God throughout the day. As a layman, Though my prayer life continues, I find it much more difficult to practice that constant awareness of His presence. I have been fortunate to have strong faith throughout my life, even amidst crises. I find that the act of sharing with God via intercessory prayer to be one of intimacy and rest. It is a relief to be able to successfully give our needs and fears to God, even for others.

  10. Alas! I am just grateful that, through all the misunderstandings and takings for granted, you continue to offer the prayer line. It is a great service you do.

  11. In a recent sermon I explored the idea of empathy, as an important strand in the way Jesus dealt with people. In doing so he was disclosing the nature of God’s love us., and offering a model for how we might love God.
    Can we empathise with God?
    I think we can. There are passages in the Prophets where God is represented as wringing his hands in despair at the conduct and the plight of his people. I suggest that in our intercessory prayer we are empathising with God, as well as directing our spiritual energy towards the overt object of our prayer.

Comments are closed.