Intercessory Prayer

Anglo-Mormon that I am, I subscribe to the Society of St. John the Evangelist‘s daily “Brother, Give Us a Word” email. A few weeks back, the word was “Intercede,” and this is what Br. Geoffrey Tristram had to say about it:

Intercessory prayer is hard work, but it is a work of love. It is carrying those we love and long to be healed in our hearts, and taking them wonderfully and mysteriously into the very heart of God.

Around the same time, a friend who is facing a serious family health situation asked me and another mutual friend about intercessory prayer. My friend was finding it difficult to pray for this family member, in part because the hope that things would go a certain way seemed too desperate. I’ve also known what it is to want something so badly that every attempt to pray about it seemed warped by that desire. Sometimes that desire feels like a wall designed to keep God out, which lends heavy irony to praying that God will grant it. (Nick Cave has a great song that inhabits this irony with full earnestness.)

Having come up against that barrier, I began trying to pray less as an articulation of what I might want than as a practice of radical openness before God. In time I came to feel that this prayer practice might be a way to learn from Jesus how to be with other people in their suffering. I figured that he knows a thing or two about that, and that he could teach me if I opened myself up to it.

As this post of mine suggests, the results of such prayer can be both frightening and painful, even as they also felt very holy. This sort of prayer opens up a high-voltage intimacy that can be hard to handle well. Part of the risk is that figuring out how to handle the consequences of the prayer takes over from the prayer itself, and something that started out being for and about someone else ends up being all about me, instead. Intercessory prayer carries the explicit danger of slipping into the heroic egoism of a messiah complex, at which point you really are just praying to yourself. (Maybe Jesus’ messiahship consists in his ability to refuse the comforts of a good messiah complex.)

At this point I’ve circled back around to intercessory prayer in something like its more traditional form. I still can’t pray for particular outcomes, but praying for God to be with people I love feels true. The Anglican in me will pray “May God’s peace be with you” while thinking of the person. Maybe intercessory prayer only works relationally, when it’s not about me or you, but about going together “wonderfully and mysteriously into the very heart of God.” That presence doesn’t really solve any of the underlying problems—people still suffer and die unjustly—but being there for each other through such horrors seems the last bastion of human hope. And perhaps such presence can teach us compassion for God, who all too often bears mute but weeping witness to human affairs, and who sees much more profoundly than we yet do just how painful (but also how beautiful and glorious) it all is.

Jesus prayed in his intercessory prayer that we might all be one, even as he and the Father are one, expressing his bitter longing and insistent hope for a togetherness that only rarely comes to pass. Looking into that abyss, maybe all that we can do is hold our own agonizing desire for shared presence up to God, who understands.

(This post is dedicated to the friends who shared that conversation and who now fill my prayers. May God’s peace be with you.)

Comments

  1. I have never in my life spent an hour in any religious service half so uplifting as the times I’ve prayed Vespers with the Cowley Fathers. (And Brother Geoffrey is as nice a person as God ever made.) The handful of times I’ve gone, it has been in the company of my best friend, who is at this moment in the process of dying–only days, perhaps hours, left. While I generally use the term “tender mercy” ironically, reading this post today is such a mercy in earnest. Thank you.

  2. Olde Skool says:

    Bless you, friend

  3. Jason K. says:

    L-dG: my one attempt to attend a service there didn’t work out, but I’ve heard that it’s a marvelous experience. Blessings to your friend, and also to you.

    Much love to you, Olde Skool.

  4. Joseph Stanford says:

    Amen

  5. Beautiful and thoughtful (as always, Jason K.). I am caused to reflect that our Industrial Age fascination with levers and pulleys obscures the fact that humans are not machines. My psychiatrist friend’s “just listen” and my Buddhist friend’s “give attention” tells me otherwise.

  6. Jason K. says:

    Your friends give good advice.

  7. Emily U says:

    “…people still suffer and die unjustly—but being there for each other through such horrors seems the last bastion of human hope.” Amen.

    Also, I went back and reread the post you linked to from last February. It’s just as unsettling (in a good way) as it was on a first reading. Have you written a book about love and prayer? You should :)

  8. Jason K. says:

    Thanks. Maybe I will…

  9. So good. “Maybe Jesus’ messiahship consists in his ability to refuse the comforts of a good messiah complex.” And this: “Jesus prayed in his intercessory prayer that we might all be one, even as he and the Father are one, expressing his bitter longing and insistent hope for a togetherness that only rarely comes to pass.”

    Thanks for the humility and wisdom — and wisdom of humility. I agree with Emily U that you should write a book about love and prayer!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s