“All prayer is social. We discover this when we pray for others.”1
I have a friend who has endured many operations. He bears the scars of the expeditions surgeons have made deep within his body. A liver transplanted, heart valves repaired, cleaned, and adjusted, ducts cleansed, fevers abated, numbness cancelled and, on top of everything else, a conflagration of COVID. He has survived it all with a degree of cheerfulness that is astounding.
I pray for him every day, despite my puzzlement over the geometric triangulations between my friend, the Lord, and myself. God knows my friend’s needs infinitely better than I. God does not need my reminders. God does not need my prayers. I believe God would care for my friend even if he were friendless and isolated, say, a prisoner on death row.
I could imagine — putting myself in his place — that believing others were praying for me would be a comfort, a point of light in the darkness, a step toward healing. But what if it weren’t strictly true? Supposing no one bothered to pray: would my belief that they were function as a prayer placebo?
Perhaps “prayer for others” is not entirely about those prayed for.
I try to determine the process of causality (break glass in case of emergency). Can it produce the desired result: the full healing and restoration of my friend? Immediately, I am hit with a flood of variables to consider. Left alone, I can helplessly argue myself out of any hope in the effectiveness of prayer on behalf of other people.
I realize I am overthinking this, but it’s a path I’ve trodden so many times I no longer look where my feet are walking.
Again, suffering comes in a variety of colors. I might not see yours within the spectrum of light available to me. What I see now is learned: what I am educated into, persuaded out of, brought up within, and have imitated.
This is second-order reflection, that which I benefit from when given an opening to someone else’s experience.
For example, what I know of racism I have learned from James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, Toni Morrison, and many other writers. From my friends: Randy, Colleen, Camille, Judy, Roz, Mo, Inez, and Yi. From the relentless cascade of images and names. The profiled, the detained, the handcuffed, slammed, and throttled. It’s the color of suffering in a spectrum I have learned to see through special lenses. But always at a distance.
When it comes to praying for others, I can easily talk myself out of it. Perhaps my own answers to prayer were retro-fitted rationalizations. Perhaps I created connections where none existed. The ghost of Hume beckons; there is no way to prove that one thing causes another, especially not in the realm of prayer to an invisible and apparently absent God. Or the old sword-thrust of the religiously smug: “You don’t have enough faith. If you did, you could move mountains.” As if prayer was an up-brand form of telekinesis.
First-order reflection is what I do when I experience something myself and think about it after. Thoreau says in his journals we first scale the mountain, then we climb it again at home as we remember each step on the route to the summit.
What I know without a doubt is that I owe more than I can repay to others. And the fact they do not regard it as a debt opens before me a path of wonder and gratitude. I have experienced this freely given form of prayer all my life. It is the unspoken prayer of generosity, felt but not heard, a swelling force-field that surrounds me.
The whole question of causality (did my prayer accomplish anything?) fades and drops away as we see ourselves joining with others — and with God — in our prayers of care. We gradually come to see others and ourselves from the vantage point of God. We see our interconnectedness with all others and with the world under and through God. Because of friendship, because of love, we must hold them up to God in prayer. That is the need we have.
We are encouraged to “pray without ceasing” because prayer is unceasingly needed. Needs that both the pray-ers and the prayed-for have. It’s about constant needs through time, not about unending prayers.
We cannot protect those we love from random violence, evil, disease, or death. We may not even be able to shield them from decisions gone awry. These are the contradictions within which we live. We should not imagine these contradictions will easily dissolve. God is not in the magic racket.
We are here in a world as beautiful as it is broken. Our fractures break up the smooth planes and surfaces of our lives. Their edges are jagged angles. Our prayers drop like healing balm and settle, filling the spaces between them, smoothing them with time, blending the breaks into a body that bears its scars with patience and nobility.
Notes & References:
1. Ulanov, Ann and Barry. Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p. 85.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at email@example.com. His first book, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, is now available.