Wednesday, December 17, 2008
The last few days I have been praying very hard. Hopefully that is not something special when you live in a monastery! But this has been intercessory prayer for the husband of a very good friend. He has been going through multiple health challenges in the last year culminating in open heart surgery. The day after the surgery complications developed and at one point it looked like there was only a 50% chance of survival. My intercessory prayer came from somewhere deep, a sharp, tearing longing for people I loved.
I have to confess this isn’t how I usually pray for people. Usually I don’t think about it, I just do it. The prayer board at the monastery is constantly filled with requests from all sorts of people, known and unknown. During our communal prayer we have a time of lifting up intentions. Our oblate community has a very active prayer chain and the needs of an extended community of friends, family, co-workers are regularly held up. I always try to be intentional about praying for the requests on the board and joining my prayers with others but usually I don’t particularly think about it or do a lot more than utter a quick intention and move on.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what intercessory prayer really means. The reflection makes me realize why I don’t usually think about it! On a rational, theological level intercessory prayer doesn’t make sense. We say that God is omniscient, omnipotent. God knows all, is all powerful. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, God knew us before we were born. So why do have to tell God to heal someone? What does it mean when someone is not healed? We say that sometimes “no” is an answer to prayer. So does God just refuse to heal our loved ones, allows them to be injured in traffic accidents, stands by while relationships are shattered? How can God be the all-powerful, all loving God that theology proclaims and refuse to answer our prayers? How can God stand by and refuse to act?
There are no answers here. This is the realm far beyond the human construct that is theology. In theology we are in control, we are in charge of coming up with answers that make sense according to our standards. Theology allows me to understand God. In intercessory prayer we move into the arena of mystery, to a place where we have to abandon any notion that we understand what is going on, any idea that we have the least bit of control over the outcome.
This is a place of utter helplessness. It is a horrible vulnerable place. It is the same place I was at a few months ago when praying for the newborn grandchild of a friend when it wasn’t clear he would survive his first twenty four hours. It is the place of praying for people I love deeply, entering into their pain and anguish.
Theology and reason and answers have no place here. This level of intercessory prayer is the place of absurdity. When we are praying in such a way that our hearts are torn open we enter into the reality of the crib and the cross. Intercessory prayer is where we come face to face with the reality and absurdity of our faith. We don’t worship an omniscient, all powerful God, a deity detached and remote from ourselves who can casually deign to let some die, others live and seems aloof to the reality of suffering. No, we worship the God of infinite vulnerability and ultimate suffering. We pray to an absurdly human and vulnerable God, a God who gave up divinity and power and became helpless in the crib and on the cross.
I don’t like this God. I want a God who fixes my problems. I want a God who is at my beck and call to change things, to make them better. I want a God whom I can understand, whom I can put in a box and take out whenever I need. I want a God who doesn’t make me watch powerless as friends suffer. I don’t want to have my heart broken open as I can only stand by and pray.
But what I have is a God who makes me realize that in my powerless watching and hoping and praying I am sharing the reality of God. In my prayer I share the vulnerable reality of God who came not to fix my problems but to share them, who came so that we may know we are never alone in our suffering but we are enfolded and held not in power but in vulnerability and love. The gift of our God is not to take away our suffering but to come and share it. Our God enters the darkness and death of the tomb, fully human, not knowing what awaits in order to give us a glimpse of the light to come when we are surrounded by darkness.
And so I keep praying, I let my heart be broken open again, for people I know and don’t know. I continue to want a magician God who will just make things better. But I come back to a place where God shares the suffering and whose presence offers a promise of hope and light beyond the darkness.