Thoughts and Prayers

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.

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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.

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One Year On

This time last year Quietnun and I were in the U.S.A. I had gone there to attend the Benedictine Development Symposium in Schuyler, Nebraska, where I was scheduled to give a talk about our online ministry, followed by meetings with Quietnun in New York and various places in Connecticut and New Jersey. Most of our meetings concerned the development of the community and the need for permanent accommodation, but we also managed a couple of visits with our postulant-to-be and some good friends nearby. It was fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Never having been in the States as nuns, we were surprised by how kindly we were treated by everyone. The legendary friendliness of Americans is real enough, so we had to keep reminding ourselves we were guests in a foreign country. The fact that we spoke a similar language did not mean we could assume perfect understanding!

Where are we now, one year on? We have learned a lot; and we have found what we hope will prove to be a permanent home here in Herefordshire. That was not at all our idea when we went to the States last year. We have been powerfully reminded that our ways are not always God’s ways, that following his leadings means we have to give up ideas of our own and be prepared, at whatever age, to start anew. It means abandoning the loved and familiar. We had already done that twice, but who are we to limit the call and grace of God? So, one year on, a little like Abraham, we find ourselves having taken up our tent pegs and moved on into the unknown.

Probably most of you can resonate with that to some degree. One bumbles along, more or less happily, thinking nothing will ever change, and then some event, some person perhaps, causes a change we are totally unprepared for. Why should this happen to me, why should it happen now? In our case, we accepted the move to Howton Grove with joy because it means that others can now join the community. Other changes can be much harder to accept. We struggle, don’t we, hoping against hope that something will not come to pass. Our email prayerline is full of people’s secret fears and dreads: that a cancer may not spread; that the bank will not foreclose on a mortgage; that a son or daughter who is estranged may return to the family; that a husband or wife may not divorce. What has not changed for us, and never will, is the duty to take all these concerns into our prayer and intercede for others.

Today, if you have time, spend a moment or two in prayer for those faced with difficult transitions. They will never know you have prayed for them, but by praying you invite God into situations from which he may have been, in some sense, excluded. Intercessory prayer is dangerous, of course, but being surprised by God may be exactly what someone, somewhere, needs.

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