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Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Mystery of Prayer

In the past three days, I've had the occasion to pray with two people over the phone.

One is going through a very difficult time. The other has lost a loved one.

Both asked for prayer.

Over the phone. Like now. Right now. Now, now.

Indeed, one set up a time so we could pray together. We have another 'telephone prayer date' on Monday afternoon.

The other was a day later. She was deeply grieving her loss and was without pastoral care. My offer to pray with her arose spontaneously which she agreed to eagerly.

I wouldn't have been able to do one without the other.

I'm really not sure why I have been uncomfortable praying "long distance" on the telephone with people. I mean, there are at least two blogs I follow and those two bloggers frequently put out long prayer requests which they have either gotten personally or they glean from other people's blogs.

I find myself grateful to be able to join in prayer for them.

I get emails all the time from people I know, asking for prayer. I don't personally know the people I'm praying for. I will probably never meet them in this life. I pray anyway. Fervently. And always feel privileged to be able to do so.

Indeed, I have, from time to time, put out requests for prayer on my own blog. I'm always deeply moved and profoundly comforted to know that people are attending to my prayer request, however long the distance. Even though I don't know who's praying or what or how they're praying.

But, actually praying with someone, on the phone? In 'real time'? That's a different sort of thing than praying in private in your own prayer closet or or alone at your own prayer desk.

I suppose I'm more affected by "televangelists" than I care to admit.

On one level, I think there's something in me that wants to distance myself from those fake-teared showmen who look sincerely into the camera before they tightly close their eyes and say excitedly, "There's someone who is praying about a job.... Someone named 'James'. Oh, Father-God, I hear you telling me to let him know that he will find employment....Thank you, Jesus."

I suppose there's nothing really wrong with that sort of prayer, except for me, anyway, it seems less about prayer and more about the ego. . ..

. . .and "the Benjamins".

I mean, if they didn't end their telecast with a plea for money to support their ministry, I suspect they might have at least a tad more credibility with me.

One of my friends remarked how amazed she was that, in the prayers of the clergy in her church and her experience of my prayer, "Part of your prayer with me is that you pray for each other."

She said, "It feels like there are no egos involved in this manifestation of living out the gospel, which is a rare gift, I think, even in the church."

It shouldn't be, but I suppose, sadly enough, it is.

On another level, I suppose there's so much intimacy in my experience of prayer that I find the medium of electronic communication disruptive to my sense of piety. Then again, I've had some fairly intimate conversations with people over the years that were, in and of themselves, a form of prayer.

In fact, I often end conversations like that by saying, "I'll keep you in my prayers." And, I mean it. I do pray for that person or persons.

So, I ask myself, what's the difference?

I remember the time when a dear friend and priest colleague was dying of AIDS. Ms. Conroy and I had been schlepping from our home in East Orange to his apartment in Jersey City in order to care for him. There came a time, as the end approached, when he needed more than we could provide.

The care was difficult enough. The schlepping made it even more complicated.

Ms. Conroy finally had a conversation with him in which she laid out all the options, which included hospitalization with an eventual transfer to hospice and moving in with us. He decided he wanted to be with us.

About four days into round-the-clock care, assisted by four dear friends who came and also moved in with us in shifts, I found that we were still all exhausted. In the midst of it, I received a phone call from the Roman Catholic Monsignor who was the pastor at a Church in Newark and a dear friend of us both.

We chatted for a bit and wept with each other and then Monsignor said, "What you really need is prayer. Let's pray together, shall we?"

I don't know what it was that startled me about that. I mean, I had been praying. Just not with him. And, certainly not on the phone.

Before I could respond, he started, "In the Name of the Father, and the Son . . .Hello? Hello? . . .Are you still there?"

"Yes, Father," I said quietly, trying to figure out a response.

"Then, you know how this works. You're still a good Catholic girl. Let's pray together."

Suddenly, I was that 'good Catholic girl', blessing myself with an invisible rosary and saying with him, "In the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit . . . ." and then Monsignor began to pray.

I can't tell you what he said. I only felt myself bathed in a warm, comforting light that seemed to lift the weight off my shoulders. Before I knew it, he was saying a few 'Hail Mary's' and an 'Our Father' while I prayed along, in between choked sobs and blowing my nose.

When we finished, I hung up the phone and was flooded with a deep sense of gratitude.

Well, I was grateful and strangely embarrassed. I remember thinking, "I can't do that. I'm glad he did, but I don't think I could ever do that with others."

Well, since that experience, I have prayed with others on the phone, but it's always made me feel vaguely uncomfortable.

I think I'm more uncomfortable not knowing why I am uncomfortable than that I am uncomfortable praying with someone on the phone.

As I've thought about this over the last few days, I've also remembered a time when I had been ordained about a year. Just to make ends meet, I was working two jobs - one as the full time chaplain at The University of Lowell, the other as a part time Priest-In-Charge of St. David's, Salem, NH, just over the state line.

St. David's had a tradition - at least at that time - that, as people came up to the Communion Rail, they could, if they chose, also ask for laying on of hands and prayer. It was a small community, so it didn't take long. I just thought it was occasionally disruptive to the flow of the Eucharist and wondered why they didn't just have an "altar call" for healing prayer after everyone had received communion.

One morning, a woman came to the altar rail, received communion and then whispered in very distraught tones, "My husband was admitted to the hospital last night. He's had a massive heart attack. Please pray for him."

She was obviously upset and looked like she hadn't slept a wink all night. I was deeply moved and, as I prepared to put aside the patten and the wafers and center myself to lay my hands on her head and pray for her husband, I asked a simple question, "What is his name?"

Well! She became Very Angry. She snapped and hissed at me, "You don't know ANYTHING about prayer! You don't need to know his name in order to pray for him! You don't even know my name, do you? Just PRAY, will you?"

I was startled, but I collected myself quickly, put my hands on her head, took a deep breath, and prayed mightily for "this woman and her husband," after which she got up and left the church, presumably to return to her husband's bedside.

I later learned that she was a parishioner who hadn't been to church since I had arrived. "I think she has a problem with women priests," said my Senior Warden. "Don't take it personally."

Right! Nah, nothing personal. Just the core of who I am, I thought.

And... and...and... she was right. I didn't "need" a name to pray for someone. I mean, don't we pray for "the people in Haiti"? - or "Sudan"? - or "Australia"? We don't know each of their names, or the exact circumstances of each of their distress, but we pray for "them" all the same.

It's just that, in the way I pray with someone, I try to be as personal and as specific as I can. Not that I think it will give my prayer more "power" to heal specifically. It simply creates in me a greater sense of intimacy, which, for me anyway, is part of the experience of prayer.

The other thing is this: put very simply, I really don't know what I'm doing. I mean to say, I really don't know how prayer works. I only know that it does.

In saying, "prayer works" I do not mean that every prayer is answered the way I or the person who has requested prayer may have intended.

However, I don't think any prayer goes unanswered. Some will disagree with me on this, which is fine. I would challenge that person to tell me, then, how s/he thinks prayer works and how prayers are being answered. And then, prove it.

I don't think either one of us would be right or wrong. We certainly couldn't "prove" our different sides, empirically. It's just a different understanding of prayer, which, I think, is very personal.

Ultimately, I think that's part of how prayer works: Uniquely. Personally. And, at the same time, universally.

I say that I don't think any prayer goes unanswered because for me, prayer is a conversation with God. Meaning, there are two sides the the conversation and thus, two parts to prayer: my petition and the discernment of God's answer.

That last bit - discernment - is the hardest part of prayer, in my experience.

Sometimes, the answer is "Not yet." Other times, it's a flat out, "No." And sometimes, the answer is, "There's something else, some other way this situation can be used. You won't understand this right now and I'm sorry about that. Just know that I love you."

The problem is not with prayer. The problem is in not being willing - or able - to listen to and hear and discern the answer.

The other problem is time. Our sense of time is linear. God's is not. What may take a few years in our time is but a blink of an eye in God's time.

I think the best lesson I ever learned about prayer came when Mia, our youngest daughter, was about nine years old. I had set her up in the playroom and asked her to watch over Katie, another of our daughters - a profoundly disabled child - while I prepared supper.

Katie has Trisomy-21, sometimes known as Down's Syndrome - and has good receptive skills but seriously delayed communication skills - about at the level of an 18 month old. She can say a very few words, and uses 'sign language' to communicate other words, but she understands everything you say to her.

About ten minutes into chopping onions and garlic, Mia came into the kitchen, filled with all the drama only a nine year old can have.

"Ugh!" she said as she plopped her elbows on the counter and sank her face into her hands.

"What's wrong?" I asked, still chopping away.

"KATIE!' she said, completely exasperated.

"Why?" I asked, "What's wrong with Kate?"

"Well, sometimes, you know, talking with Katie is like praying to God."

I stopped chopping and listened. "What do you mean?"

"Well, you know, how, when you pray to God, like, you know God is listening to every word and God hears you? You just don't ever know what God is thinking? THAT's what it's like talking to Katie! It's like talking to God! It's so. . .so . . .sooOOoo frustrating!"

Ever since that moment, I've had this one image of God as a delightful, profoundly disabled Down's Syndrome child who hears everything, but simply can't always communicate to us in a way we understand.

I don't think you have to be, necessarily, a 'religious person' as Wikipedia claims, in order to pray. I think it does take many forms, like a "hymn, incantation, formal creedal statement, or a spontaneous utterance in the praying person."

How does it work, exactly? It's a mystery to me.

I only know that Alfred Lord Tennyson is right: "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of."

It comes down to this, for me: It's less important to know how prayer works than the assurance of the knowledge that it does.

As I was writing that last sentence, my phone starting ringing. I'm sitting here, laughing out loud, all by myself.

Gotta go. It might be another opportunity to pray.

Or, it might be God, finally answering a prayer.

Hey, you never know.


Mary Jo Campbell said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. How did you know that this is what I needed to hear today?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It just might be the mystery of prayer.

Bill said...

I think the reason prayer helps in these situations is in the knowing that someone shares and feels your pain regardless of the distance involved. It’s about not being alone, where being alone is one of the great fears in a social people. We need that touch of another mind to talk with and cry with. It only works of course if we have that very human ability to demonstrate empathy with the other person.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think you've got something there, Bill. Even so, it's still a mystery how it works.

walter said...

..I am going to ask God what has been praying for me until now-existentially? When I will get an answer I will try to see how I can put it in the form of a potential request at You and Riley for a prayer phone date where we would pray each for The others, Walter, Elizabeth, Riley. I sense a challenge in a broader opening of the heart. Would this interest you Elizabeth? In the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused and truthful. ILove my Little Girl, ILove my Traveling Mercies, ILove my Brother.

Walter Vitale

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I pray for you all the time, Walter

Brian said...

Elizabeth, this is just beautiful. My life, like most others, has been a bumpy journey to say the least and lately has been rather more turbulent than I would choose.

Prayer not only sustains this doubtful and prodigal child of God, it deepens my faith considerably. No, I have not experienced any great miracle of obvious answers to my prayers rather I have grown deeper in my understanding that ultimately it is just me and God.

As my parents age and prepare for death, as my job becomes almost untenable, as my finances seep into ruin, as fear and sadness overcome me in waves of despair, God is there. I just feel it and know it. I may have railed against God in the past, I may have doubted and even mocked God’s very existence but God is always there. Palpably and comfortingly there.

When I feel that I can’t take another step forward, that life is too much of a burden to participate in I feel that gentle, firm touch on my heart, a nudge that lets me know that I’m not alone. And if everyone I know and care about dies or abandons me I know that God will not. Ever. And I take great comfort and strength from that knowledge.

Prayer has become more than a lifeline for me -- it is like oxygen for my soul. Thanks again for your beautiful essay and for sharing your own struggles.