A priest is asked to pray – a lot. Sometimes it is as designated or honorary pray-er, as at a church dinner. “Father N., will you bless the food, please?” Anyone could do this, of course, but it often falls to the priest. While it is a token moment, it is also an important one, a public acknowledgment of our dependence upon God and our gratitude for the multitude of “ordinary” blessings he offers us daily. The beginnings of meetings fall in this category, too. “Father, will you open the meeting with a prayer, please?” Again, while pro forma, this type of prayer is serious business: what church meeting wouldn’t benefit from more prayer?
Sometimes the prayers are liturgical. You often may recognize these by their introduction, “The Lord be with you,” which serves, not infrequently, as Anglican crowd control – a baptized version of “quieten down now, y’all.” Even this introduction reminds us that all prayer ushers us into the presence of God the Father Almighty and should be undertaken with a certain fear and trembling. Some of these liturgical prayers are the “property” of the whole church – laity and clergy – as in Morning and Evening Prayer. Some few – those prayers of absolution, consecration, and blessing – are reserved for priests. Liturgical prayer is also serious business; we are praying for and with the church, and not infrequently on behalf of all God’s creation.
Then there are pastoral prayers: the prayers spoken at the bedsides of the sick and dying or by the gurney of a parishioner being prepared for surgery, the prayers offered for bereaved family and friends at the death of someone they simply can’t imagine living without, the prayers born of confession or spiritual direction, the prayers requested during late night emergency phone calls or on the prayer team emails.
“Father, the test results came back positive. Will you pray for me, please?”
“Father, I’m worried about my daughter. She doesn’t come to church anymore and she’s mixed up in some things she ought not to be. Will you pray for her, please?”
“Father, my marriage/career/faith/etc. is falling apart and I don’t see how I can go on. Will you pray for me, please?”
“Father, I don’t even know what to ask for, but will you pray for me, please?”
These prayers are sacred converse between priest and parishioner and between priest and Lord, and, as such, are profound blessings. But they are also hard – sometimes, so very hard. Does anyone really presume that a priest knows better how to pray or for what to pray than does anyone else? If so, let me set the record straight. It is a priest’s calling to pray. It is a priest’s privilege to pray. It is a priest’s blessing to pray. But I suspect that no priest – and certainly not this one – feels “qualified” to pray, adequate to pray. My rector, a faithful and grace-filled priest, recently confessed before the assembled body in a profoundly true and beautiful sermon that he is a beginner in prayer. We all are – all priests, all people of God. Priests are asked to pray not because we are experts and not because we are closer to God than others, but because it is our calling and because others assume – rightly, I hope – that we will be faithful to do so. If we say we will pray, we actually will, in the midst of our own confusion, through our own halting words.
I recently learned that a parishioner had been admitted to the hospital and I planned a visit for the following morning. His is a difficult situation – multiple long term health issues and disability with frequent admissions to health care facilities. The night before, I began to pray about what to pray for the following day. As I drove to the hospital, I prayed about what to pray for when I arrived. As I stood by his bedside watching him sleep, I prayed about what to pray for when he awoke. That is the most difficult part of pastoral prayer, I think: knowing what to pray for. You might think it would be easy: pray for the sick to be healed, pray for the unemployed to get a job, pray for the test results to be negative.
But it’s not easy at all.
I have seen a man profoundly changed – brought nearer God and transformed into the image of Christ – by prolonged injury and pain and disability. Would a prayer for healing have honored God and this difficult means of grace? What of an elderly patient considered terminal by her doctors? Of course, God is the Great Physician of souls and bodies and can heal the most humanly hopeless cases. But, he does not always do so, and who am I to say if it is appropriate in this case? Might a self-sufficient and recalcitrant servant of God learn humility and dependence by the loss of a job followed by a prolonged time of unemployment and struggle? Certainly, or it might break him entirely and drive him farther from God. What do I pray for? I don’t know. I suspect no priest really does.
How, then, in the moment I am called upon, do I decide what to pray for? I enter again the biblical story – its flow and rhythm and plot – because I know that all true prayer must be formed by the story and must carry the story forward in the lives of individuals and the church. I study – yes, study – the prayer book as a text teaching me how to pray. I pray the Psalms in all their depth and breadth of human longing, exultation, pain, and vengeance. I listen to the heart and words of the one requesting prayer and to the heart and words of the One to whom the prayer will be offered. Between the lines and in the silence between words, the answers are sometimes found. And I trust that my words are not, in the end, the most important part of prayer at all. If I say only, “Lord, have mercy,” it is enough and more than enough. If I pray amiss, reading God’s will badly, I know that
…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Rom 8:26).
So what did I pray for when the patient awoke? We talked and I listened and I heard the great weariness in his voice and the sound of growing hopelessness there. And, in that moment God answered my prayer and gave me His prayer for my brother.
Please ask a priest to pray with you and for you. To be invited into the breach between need and bounty, between sickness and health, between despair and faith, between life and death, is a profound gift. To be invited to join with God in the good work he has already begun in the lives of his elect is all grace. Yes, it is hard, but it is the best kind of hard.
Note: The hospital visit is a composite of several such visits; the brother mentioned is likewise a composite. In this way I have sought to preserve the truth of such situations while honoring the confidence of those who accord me the grace of accepting pastoral care.
Photo: Public Domain.