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.