For many years our community has maintained a 24/7 prayerline here. It is well publicized, and, on the whole, I think it has worked well, allowing people to ask for prayer (anonymously if they wish), at any time of day or night. We are scrupulous about reading every request and faithfully praying for all who ask. Our prayerline sends back an automated message assuring people of this.
I have remarked before that we are increasingly seeing people sending in prayer requests and asking — demanding might be a more accurate word — a personal response or ‘proof’ that we are praying for them. How does one prove prayer, I wonder. We are also finding that more and more people don’t bother with the prayerline but telephone instead, often forgetting the time differences between, say, the UK and the USA, or the demands of the monastic time-table; or they send messages via Twitter or Facebook, or add prayer requests to posts about entirely different subjects; or they append another request to the automated response of our prayerline and whizz it back to us. None of this would matter very much — we try to pray for everyone, no matter how the request comes to us — except for one thing. We simply can’t respond to everyone individually, and the anger some display when we can’t or don’t makes me wonder whether the ‘lazy askers’ are in fact dealing in superstition, not prayer.
Prayer is about trust. It is about inviting God into various situations and trusting him to act, or not act, as he sees best. Superstition is about trying to control God: to force him to act in accordance with our will. Put like that, one can see what a silly notion it is; but, sadly, I think that is how many people view the prayer of intercession. And superstition, of course, has its own rules. Get someone to pray for you who wields influence with God, but don’t ask a saint because saints can’t be controlled any more than God can. Ask a monk/nun instead: they may not have much more influence with God than I do, but at least they will do my (the asker’s) bidding and be persistent. I exaggerate, of course, but superstition is not something we want to become involved in, and I think we are right to have a few rules of our own about how we deal with such requests.
When people ask us to pray that they win the Lottery or marry a beautiful wife or whatever, we pray for them but we don’t presume to prescribe the details to God. He knows what their real need is, and we can safely leave the outcome of the Lottery or the marriage proposal to him. That is the difference between prayer (trust) and superstition (lack of trust), between recognizing God’s holiness and showing contempt for him. We pray for everyone, as I said, and no matter how the requests come to us or how oddly they read, we will always pray because the person who made them has been brought to our notice for a reason.
So, if you are disappointed that we haven’t responded personally to a request for prayer that you have sent in, please be reassured. You are being asked to trust because you, too, are involved in the prayer we make. It isn’t something we do on your behalf; it is something we draw you into, because the prayer must ultimately be your own. We are your companions in prayer, nothing more, nothing less.