The very phrase sets my teeth on edge: ‘thoughts and prayers’. The cynic in me suspects those of using it of very little thought and probably even less prayer, but then I am reminded that not everyone has the gift of being able to put into words deep feelings of solidarity and often helplessness in the face of others’ suffering. The politician who reacts to news of some disaster by tweeting his ‘thoughts and prayers’ may be trying, however ineptly, to express something important; and who am I to judge his prayer?
There is a difficulty, however, when the prayer element is dismissed as being a cop-out, a mere rhetorical flourish without substance or meaning. Recently, I had the weird experience of reading an absolute parody of what I believe about prayer. It was only when I realised that the writer saw prayer, even intercessory prayer, as something dashed off, requiring no effort or application, that I began to understand. For the writer, prayer was the last thing to be attempted, and it was really only a way of assuring myself that I was doing something — a bit like the rich man St James accuses of wishing the poor man well while doing nothing whatever to help. If my prayer or yours is like that, then of course it is not really prayer at all.
Those who pray, or try to pray, for others know that prayer isn’t an easy option. It means standing with Moses, arms weary with being upheld, or lying in sackcloth and ashes with David, pleading for the life of his son; it means being steadfast with Monica, during the long years of praying for the conversion of Augustine. There are countless examples of prayer in scripture and the lives of the saints that show us what it means to intercede for another. They give us some idea of the effort and application needed. For those of us who have been given the beautiful vocation of a Benedictine, there is a special urgency about this duty of intercession. Every day in the monastery we receive requests for prayer; and every day each member of the community quietly and persistently lays these requests before the Lord, confident that he will hear and answer as he sees best in each case. We can grow weary; we can want to give up; but we are held there by nothing less than the love of God and the knowledge that our inadequacy is as nothing in his sight— even our puny ‘thoughts and prayers’. Be encouraged.