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Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Mystery and Power of Prayer


NOTE: See Update #2 Below:
Ms. Conroy is scheduled for knee surgery later this morning. She has torn the anterior meniscus in her right knee after rupturing the tendon there.

Believe it or not, the ruptured tendon is a side effect of the antibiotic she was taking. (I know. Go figure.)

This is is a prayer request, which also provides an opportunity for me to say a few things about the mystery and power of prayer - in cyberspace and elsewhere.

While I've asked for all sorts of prayer - for the church, for General Convention - it is not my usual custom to post personal prayer requests in this space.

I have a little "Light a Candle" chapel link over on the right side of this blog and every once in a while I remind folks that it's there.

I have asked for prayer when my mother was very sick and again when she died (which, believe it or not, will be one year ago, July 29). I have asked for prayers in memory of my daughter who died - we will mark the fourth anniversary in December). A few months ago, I asked for prayers for my brother who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease (at age 56).

I am always overwhelmed by your generosity and kindness, your genuine care and concern.

Although I do pray privately when I read prayer requests on other blogs, I don't post prayer requests taken from other blogs or those asked privately of me.

There are a few reasons for that.

First, I am deeply blessed by a company of fierce 'prayer warriors' - people I have come to know over the years who have a dedicated and disciplined life of prayer. As my father used to say when my mother would offer a third helping and he would decline, "That's okay. I'm good."

When I do post personal prayer requests here I know my anxiety level is rising, as it is right now. It helps to talk about it openly. To let people know where I am and why I might be just a bit 'off' in some of my posts. Or, when I go on, and on . . . . Um, sort of like now.

It's not like Ms. Conory hasn't had surgery before. More complicated stuff. It's just that, this time, she's also anxious. Which is very unusual for her. Which makes me anxious.

It also helps to feel like I'm casting a wide safety net. You know. Sort of like "Prayer as the New York Lottery". Anyone in the Northeast Corridor who watches commercial television can tell you the NY Lottery slogan: "Hey, you never know."

It's a bit like that. Much more about my anxiety than anything else.

I guess I'm also fairly reticent after a simple request for prayers from one blog led to a misunderstanding about the exact, proper, tidy process of requesting prayer, which resulted in one of the most painful conflicts I've ever had with a colleague - about prayer, no less.

Obviously, prayer and requests for prayer are a deeply serious thing to me.

So, let me get a few things clear:

If you have a blog, I am not asking you to post this on - or link to - it. In fact, I'm asking you not to. First off, Ms. Conroy would have a fit if she ever found out about it. She finds those sorts of things, in her words, "more self-serving than an exercise in service of prayer."

She is also often critical of the Prayer List in churches - referring to them as the "unofficial gossip sheet". You know: "Hmmm . . . Sally Jones was on the prayer list last Sunday. Wonder if that had anything to do with the car accident her alcoholic husband was in last week. He's such a good for nothing . . . .blah, blah, gossip, gossip . . ."

I have had people call the church to put someone on the prayer list and later had that person or a family member call and ask to be taken off the list because "there are too many busy-bodies in this town."

Sigh!

I've also had the incredible experience of having a few members of the Liturgy Committee in one church I've served ask if we could "cut down" on the Prayers of the People. "It's one of the most boring parts of the service," one complained. Another said, "It's the one part of the whole liturgy I really hate. Too long. Besides, I don't know half those people. I mean, what am I praying for? Why bother?"

Sigh!

Another time, a woman who came from a more 'free-church' experience felt inhibited and bridled by the various forms of the Prayers of the People in the BCP. "We aren't really praying in church," she said, angrily, "We're just mouthing words." It's the same thing that's often said about forgiveness.

Sigh!

On the other hand, I'm always fascinated with the reports that come back after our Confirmands make their required visits to other churches to experience other forms of prayer. They most always have something to say about the local Methodist Church where one of the pastors moves informally up and down the aisle with a microphone asking, "Does anyone have any requests for anyone who is sick?" And, "Does anyone have a celebration they'd like to thank God for?"

The person who has a prayer request is then handed the microphone so the whole church can hear and join in prayer.

"Honest, Rev'd Elizabeth," one of the kids will say in the harsh, judgmental tones of an adolescent, "it was like being on Oprah!"

"Well, what's wrong with that?" I ask, usually to eyes rolling around the room, punctuated by loud groans. "It's not the Book of Common Prayer!" they respond, as if to an idiot who ought to know better.

I fear I may be contributing to one of the 10 Deadly Sins of Anglicanism: Worshiping the worship.

Sigh!

It seems that everyone has an opinion about prayer and how it works. Including me. And, of course, Ms. Conory.

So, please - no posts, no links. Thank you. Ms. Conroy thanks you.

I'm not asking you to send the request on to anyone else, but if you know someone with a dedicated and disciplined prayer life who might pray for Ms. Conroy, I'd appreciate if you did that privately.

Indeed, I am not asking you to make a Very Big Deal about it at all.

I simply covet and will cherish a prayer - your personal, private prayer - for Ms. Conroy.

There's no process, no proper way to do it. There are no specific words or petitions, no forms for you to fill out, and no deadline for you to meet. Yes, you may use the prayers in the BCP, if you prefer.

Whatever. Whenever.

You know, just a few words between you and God in her name.

I suppose a few words from me are now in order about the mystery and power of prayer and why I take it so seriously.

Let me do that by telling you a story.

In 1998, a lump was discovered in my right breast after a routine mammography. Because of its size and location, the doctors were fairly certain that it was non malignant (it was), but I was scheduled to have a lumpectomy with the biopsy - just as a precaution. As my surgeon said, "You and I will both sleep better after that thing is out of your body."

I remember saying, "Amen."

As I prepared for the surgery, I went to see my bishop who was, at the time, Jack Spong. Now, say what you want about the man, but if you say it in front of my face, you had better have only good things to say.

Whatever else can or has been said about Jack, I know this much to be true: The man has a dedicated and disciplined prayer life.

I told him about my impending surgery and asked him to pray with me and for me. He was his usual thoughtful, caring, pastoral self and then asked, "Now, Elizabeth, I'm going to ask you a question. I don't mean to be insensitive, but knowing this will help me pray for you."

He looked deep into my eyes and then asked slowly, carefully, "When you ask me for prayers, what are you asking, really?"

Startled, I asked, "Whatever do you mean?"

"Well," he said, "I'm sure you've had the experience of having people ask you for prayers because they think you have some sort of direct link - some way of changing things - things that can't be changed. You know. They never say this straight-out but they are looking to you for prayer as some sort of 'magic trick.'"

"Ah, right," I said, suddenly understanding. "Yes, yes I have had that experience," adding quickly, "No, sir, I'm not asking that."

"Then," he asked softly, gently, "what are you asking for, exactly? What is it you believe about prayer?"

Only with a bishop like Jack Spong could you feel simultaneously that your soul and body were being cared for as well as your intellect.

"Oh, Jack," I said, "I feel if I start talking about prayer, I'm going to sound like some kind of granola head. I mean, it's not an easy topic of conversation, is it?"

"No, no it's not," he said, wisely, "but I have a feeling that this conversation is going to be a form of prayer. Go ahead, Ms. Granolahead. Give it your best shot. Mr. Granolahead is listening."

I took a deep breath and realized that I was, at once, deeply grateful and deeply frightened to be having this conversation about prayer with my bishop. So, I pushed pass the fear, found the gratitude and spoke from there.

What I remember saying was something like this:

When I ask for prayer, I am usually at least vaguely aware that I am asking out of anxiety. And yes, a part of me is asking from that little girl place that still exists in my psyche who believes her parents can do anything - including getting my Christmas wish list correctly to Santa, obtaining my favorite chocolates from the Easter Bunny, and getting money from the Tooth Fairy.

As a priest, I'm aware that some people make their prayer requests of me from that same place in their own psyche. Some parts of the church have capitalized on the infantilizing effect of prayer. I don't think that honors either the petitioner of prayer or the God to whom we pray.

And yet, there is an infantilization process to illness and disease, isn't there? When I was diagnosed with having a lump in my breast, it was the most serious health threat I had ever had in my life. When I was referred to the surgeon, I remember looking long and hard at the certificates and diplomas hanging in his office.

Suddenly, I wanted to know everything I could about him: Where did he go to medical school? Extra points if it was Ivy League. Where did he do his residency? Was he board certified? Was I getting The Very Best?

I instantly became six years old again. If 'daddy'(or 'mommy') was going to take care of me, I wanted the best, most qualified parent in the world! I wanted my doctor to 'make it all better'. And if s/he couldn't then, by God (by God, indeed), I would find someone who would!

In those situations, I think we often expect the same thing of God - and the people we ask to pray to God for us. It's not a bad thing, necessarily. Neither is it a good thing. It's a very human thing, isn't it?

So, what do I think of prayer? Besides the fact that it is powerful and it is a deep, deep mystery?

Well, here's what this 'Granolahead' remembers telling her bishop. When I imagine myself praying, I imagine the cosmos as a large mesh of interconnecting pieces of thread. Everyone has their very own thread on which they stand, and when everyone is praying there is a certain hum - a zum - not unlike a Zen monastery in prayer, or the sound of Friday nights in the Roman Catholic church of my youth when everyone is saying the rosary and 'making a novena'.

When I am anxious and in need of prayer, I feel in the dark and and cold and all alone on my single thread. When I know people are praying for me, suddenly, I feel lighter, lifted up, and not alone. Sometimes, I imagine hearing that 'zum', that hum of prayer. It's an enormous comfort to me.

See what I mean?

Granolahead.

And yes, I think prayer can change things, but mostly what it changes is the person who is praying.

Yes, I have prayed for a miracle, but when I do, I am not asking for God to put on a magic show. I'm asking for something to happen even though I'm not sure if it's the right thing to ask.

And even though I'm quite certain that it's beyond my comprehension as to how it all happens, I ask for it anyway.

I can't remember who said this, but it's my favorite quote about prayer, "Prayer is like this: First you step out on a cliff and then you grow wings."

I know. Not helpful, right? Pure Granolahead.

But, truth be told, that's how it is - for me, at least

My bishop laughed and agreed with me. Prayer is a great mystery and it is the most powerful force in the universe.

I don't know how it works. I only know that it does. Even though we don't always get what we asked for. Even though it can feel like it hasn't worked at all - in fact, has been an enormous failure in terms of net effect.

You know, I think God may well get pissed off when we don't ask for that which seems impossible to us. I do believe that all things are possible with God.

I also think we should ask for the most outrageous things from God - things that seem unreachable and unattainable. You know, like world peace. A cure for cancer. An end to world hunger.

I don't believe God will wave a magic wand and - poof - make everything happen.

The magic, I think, is that suddenly, we'll find the will to be the change we seek in the world. That's the real miracle of prayer. Well, at least it is for me.

Thanks for your prayers. They just may help a miracle to happen. Ms. Conory and I may just find the comfort of the faith we profess.

Hey, you never know.

UPDATE #1: Looks like the Holy Spirit is listening in. This just in from Sr. Joan Chittister:

Prayer

Prayer
is the breath of the soul,
the life energy of the spirit.
It is the story of the interplay
between God and me.
It is the link
between the inner and outer life.

There is no formula for it beyond the need
to nourish it with both words and silence.

The prayer of words is simply meant
to fill our minds and thoughts
with an awareness of the nature of God
and the attitudes of soul needed
to immerse ourselves in the God-life
until we melt into the presence of God within.

There the great silence of God becomes
the central, major focus of our lives,
the anchor of our hearts,
the stabilizer that carries us
through all the moments of life
on a straight course directly to the heart of God.

–from The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications)

Update #2: She's home!

All is well. What a champ, eh?

Sore. Cranky. Ordering me around a bit ("No, don't put the pillow UNDER the knee. NEVER under the knee. Under the lower leg. That's it. Now, could I have a ginger ale. Diet coke? Hmmm . . . don't we have any ginger ale?")

You know, back to (almost) normal.

Actually, it sounds good to my ears.

Okay - so here's the real deal. When Ms. Conroy was having her pre-op lab work, her EKG came back showing evidence of an old heart attack.

Right.

Heart Attack.

Old.

Just about gave us a heart new attack.

So, off to a cardiologist who scratched his head and said, "Yup, that's what it shows. But nothing else fits."

A few years ago, she did have a bout of Really Bad heartburn. At least, that's what we thought it was. Turns out, it was much worse than that.

So, we did a whole battery of other tests which led, ultimately, to her being cleared for surgery.

Now you know the reason for the anxiety. We weren't as concerned about the surgery as the anesthesia.

The anesthesiologist was a real pro. Had everyone on high alert, which, thankfully, was not necessary.

So, all's well that ends well. And all will be well, as St. Julian said, in all manner of things, all will be well.

We are probably looking at a total knee replacement in 3 - 5 years, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

I'm also Really Grateful that the staff was so professional and caring. There was never a second when we were not treated like the couple we are.

I know we have Domestic Partnership, and I had all my papers with me, but there's a difference, as we have discovered, between having rights and having those rights respected and honored without 'attitude'.

I mean, how many married folk feel compelled to bring their marriage license with them every time they go to the hospital?

Thankfully, none of that was necessary.

Thanks for all your prayers. Really. Thank you.

They worked. I can't imagine how much more anxious we would have been without them.

We are so grateful.

22 comments:

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Prayers for both of you, Elizabeth. I've given up trying to figure out how prayer "works"--I just rest in the sense of comfort it brings me to know that others are doing it on my behalf. May both you and Ms. Conroy know that comfort and peace.

Pax,
Doxy

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I tend to be a little like Ms. Conroy about the "prayer list." Sunday when the name "Sue" showed up, I immediately called my friend Sue who moved away from our parish a year ago, and said, "Uh...a Sue showed up on the prayer list at church today and I wanted to make sure it wasn't you...and if it WAS you, I wanted to know what to say so I could get the gossips at church to STFU."

That said, you and Ms. Conroy are often in my daily prayers anyway, even if you get lumped into "All my blogfriends and those close to them" sometimes. But I'm glad you reminded me today is the day. I'll offer up mine while I am signing out my caseload this morning!

jmcleod76 said...

Wishing you both warmth and comfort.

Barbara said...

... and all God's people say amen, Amen, and AMEN.

Bill said...

Give Barb my love. She already knows she's covered in the prayer department.

Riley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grandmère Mimi said...

Elizabeth, Ms Conroy, you, and the medical staff have my prayers for safe and successful surgery. May your minds and hearts be quited and at peace, my dear friend.

It doesn't matter how prayer "works"; I just know that it works.

Love and blessings.

suzanne said...

I agree with Doxy. I don't know how it works and I'm not sure I really want to know. However I've experienced the "Peace that passes all understanding" in my own life, and I definitely knew I was being prayed for.

Prayers to you and Ms.Conroy for todays surgery and through recovery. Be kind to one another.

Love to you both.

Riley said...

Okay, I'll try this again, since my first comment didn't go through.

I agree with Ms. Conroy about prayer lists in churches. It only gives 'inquiring minds' something to speculate about, and more fat to chew on.

You and Ms. Conroy will be in my prayers today and throughout her recovery. Warm, soothing thoughts flowing your way, sweetie.

susankay said...

I pray for peace and healing (not cure) and for freedom from fear (or anxiety). That's all I have any sense of being appropriate for me to do. And so I do for both of you.

Also, although I am not personally very good at prayer (other than the above, supplemented still by "now I lay me down to sleep"), the blogosphere has taught me to be unafraid to ask others to pray and then to do my little best at prayer for those who ask.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

12:52 PM: Update: I'm in the waiting room. Waiting. Not my strongest suit. You may have noticed. Your prayers are helping more than you know. Keep 'em comin. And, thanks.

VTcrone said...

I just lit a candle-for both of you, and just before going to your blog, I'd read Sr. Joan's prayer as I get her news letter weekly in my inbox.
Now I'll see if I can find a Jacquie Lawson card to send to Ms. Conroy via your e-mail address.

Namaste-

Elisabeth said...

Having Ms. Conroy on the prayer list @ Intercession will have the people wondering momentarily about who she is but it's Intercession - we have a huge prayer list (which always causes someone to complain about the length of the prayers for the people). The important thing is she is being prayed for and has you there to wake up to.
lis

suzanne said...

Waiting is the worst. Prayers still ascending for you and Barbara.

ST

suzanne said...

Nurses, EMS people are the worst patients. Just go get the gingerale, and deliver it with a smile and say "yes dear". She'll want to slug you, but that's a good sign.

Three cheers for the staff!

BTW the moderation word is MITER!!!

it's margaret said...

OH MY!!! Well, maybe the heart stuff is for next week. Right now, I am really glad you are both home, adjusting pillows and all that.

blessings on you both!

IT said...

SO glad to hear it went well!!!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Thanks be to God and the medical staff and to all who prayed. I'm pleased and very relieved, as I'm sure you and Ms Conroy and many others are. Lovely news.

Love and blessings.

Karen said...

Prayers for recovery -- for both of you. Glad it is going well.

FranIAm said...

I am praying in gratitude for the good outcome.

You have said so much about prayer here I am going to have to just sit with this post. I sit with in with great love for you.

Magdalene6127 said...

Despite your request for no posts, no links, I have linked to this (aty [un]closeted pastor], but because I found it to be such a wonderful reflection on the nature of prayer (complete with a Jack Spong story-- heaven!). Please forgive. Ms. Conroy has been in my (quiet) prayers.

Pax, C./ Mags

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

How could I refuse the [un]closeted pastor? I'm honored.