Last summer, Lori Erickson, the “Holy Rover” at Spiritual Travels, put out a call to her women readers: if you would be willing to be interviewed for a magazine article she was writing on prayer, please contact her via email. Lori’s blog is the first one I ever subscribed to and, though we have never met, I felt inclined to respond in the way one would if a friend asked for your help. We arranged a time to speak via telephone, and she called me one sunny morning during my summer vacation.
What I had neglected to think about was the fact that she would ask me questions about my own prayer practices.
I am not a very good pray-er: I don’t pray regularly; I feel self-conscious when I do so (Dear God, I begin, as if writing a letter to my Higher Power); I run out of things to say as soon as the pleasantries have been exchanged. As a teenager I used to pray the rosary specifically for its soporific effects when I couldn’t fall asleep – it was a particularly bad night if I was still awake after 10 “Hail Mary’s” and a “Glory Be”. In the ensuing conversation with Lori, therefore, I had little to offer. I managed to make the comment that I think some women have a tough time asking for things in prayer because they feel selfish doing so, and they’re keenly aware the Lord has bigger fish to fry.
The interview was pleasant though short. Let’s face it, I wasn’t a rich vein of thought on the topic, worthy of taking up Lori’s deadline-meeting time frame. So I was surprised to hear from her again – asking to clarify some things from the first interview. Lori said the editor wanted her to ask whether I could recount a time I did, in fact, pray for something specific. So, I shared the story I shared here on this blog. (Briefly, in a retreat prayer service, another retreat attendee claimed to receive a message from God for me, answering my anguished questions about the trajectory of my life.). Lori thanked me and moved on. But then she called a third time, saying the editor wanted her to beef up the portion of the article in which she related my story. She asked, “Do you think this experience would have been as powerful if you hadn’t gotten that verbal response?”
The answer was unequivocally, “No.” When prayer is answered in what seems to be an undeniable manner – a direct message, a healing, an indisputable sign – it is easy to believe in its efficacy. And most of us pay attention to that (at first, at least). For me, that verbal message was a beacon of hope. Yes, things WILL change, get ready. It was still up to me to figure out what changes to make in my own life in order to be ready. Which leads me to the other side of the prayer conundrum. When the answer isn’t so easy to distinguish, or when we truly feel like no answer is forthcoming, it is much more difficult to believe in prayer’s effectiveness. Much more difficult to believe someone is listening, that we are doing more than talking to ourselves inside our own heads.
Lori’s article appeared in the December edition of Women’s Day magazine. I received an email from her, regrettfully informing me that the editor had cut the article’s length, choosing to completely remove the part about me. In all honesty, I was relieved. I had started to feel like an imposter – although Lori’s request was for ordinary women to share about their experiences, I felt uncomfortable putting my two-cents in on a topic about which I have been so ambivalent.
I’ve been revisiting the issue of prayer this week, after a conversation with my sister, Chris, on Tuesday. Monday evening, we learned that a biopsy had proven positive – meaning that Chris is facing a second bout with breast cancer. Understandably, this was difficult news for Chris, and all who love her, to hear. She broke the news to her family, asking my mother to contact us siblings – telling your loved ones such news is almost more difficult than hearing the news yourself. So Tuesday was my first chance to talk directly with my sister. She said, “I’m not going to lie, I was pretty devastated last night. But I’m doing better today.” I told her that I had already made certain her name was on several prayer lists. Her response: “That’s the thing, Jen. I know people are praying for me. I can actually feel it. I can feel their prayers.”
Of the many things I’ve read or heard about prayer, that remark of Chris’ may be the most amazing. I’ve heard it said that someone was “lifted up in prayer”, which I took to mean a figurative holding up of their name during prayer. Now I’m wondering if the phrase isn’t more literal than that. When one is brought low by life circumstances, the prayer of others can literally lift one up. As I type this, I am increasingly thinking two things:
1. Thank goodness my comments on prayer were edited out of the magazine article.
2. If there is even a chance that my doing so can lift others, help them be more resilient in the face of life’s difficulties, make them feel loved, I need to get past the discomfort I have felt, and practice praying.
I will likely never speak with an expert’s authority on the subject of prayer. There are many people, including my sister, who can with genuine knowledge and personal experience wax eloquent on the subject and say things truly worth hearing. However, I am coming to believe that while prayer may be a private conversation between my heart and God, the practice of prayer is not only about me. From now on, when I tell someone that my thoughts and prayers are with them, I will make a more sincere effort. In their lowest moments, I want the people I care about to feel me lifting them up.