There are a lot of people I am holding in my prayers at the moment. Friends and family who are ill and/or struggling, people who have come to my workshops and retreat, people who are anxious for someone they love, people who work in spirituality, or other significant jobs where the vulnerable have to rely on them, every homeless person I pass on the street, the people who come to see me for spiritual direction…the list goes on, and it only gets longer. I watched Fr. James Martin’s live broadcast during the week “What Happens When We Pray” and I was at Quidenham Monastery last week and the Carmelite nuns there said a prayer for me and my work, and I smiled when I heard it. So what happens when we say we will pray for people? How do we deal with a long list of people we want to pray for? How do we do that without it being like reading a long shopping list out to God? Or, as children would pray before bedtime:
God bless mummy, God bless daddy, and God bless granny…
Not that I am criticising children’s prayer, far from it: there is beauty and innocence in it, I used to pray in this way as a child. But I am not a child anymore, and as I am now, it seems insufficient, that there is more complexity to what I feel and want to say to God, and what graces I would ask for on the behalf of others. Of course we call these types of prayer intercessory prayers, and as I am thinking about it this week I am wondering what is it all about and how do we go about it, and really, what does it mean to ask for graces on behalf of other people? Are we to suggest what is best for them, or needed at that point? Is that really our place?
I went to a Christian meditation workshop given by Laurence Freeman some years ago at St. Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich. It was organised by the Norwich Christian Meditation Society. One thing that he said in his talk which struck me as being deeply true is that:
When we pray, we participate in God’s infinite expansion.Laurence Freeman
and my experience over time has only deepened my sense of the truth of this statement. Have you ever thought of someone spontaneously, and murmured a prayer for them, only to find out later that at that moment, they were undergoing some sort of trial? This has happened to me on more than one occasion, and I have read and heard of others who have had similar experiences. The more deeply I am in with God, the more frequently it seems to happen, when I am on retreat for example. There was one year on retreat when I started thinking about a friend of mine I had not seen for a while since he had gone to seminary to become a priest, and I said some prayers for him, asking God to hold him and to be with him. When I came out of retreat and turned my phone back on, there was a message from another mutual friend telling me that my first friend was terminally ill.
I think of intercessory prayer as participation. When I hold someone in my prayer, in front of and with God, it is a way of joining in with God in loving that person. Sometimes, I might colour or paint a mandala as a prayer for someone, during which time, I will be thinking of them and the things they say or do or are going through, thanking God for them, and if there are problems and trials in their life, I may contemplate what grace is needed to sustain them through it and ask for that for them; and for healing if it is appropriate. The nudge to pray as I see it, comes from God, a way of inviting me to participate by noticing or sensing His involvement with, or the need of, another who is in my life.
Sometimes, I may choose someone from my list, because they have come into my mind and I focus on them. A friend of mine gave me a copy of some prayers from a book she has: “Prayers That Avail Much” which I might use at times like this. These prayers feel very powerful. They use the words of scripture to make their request, reminding us and God of His promises, and they leave space to put in the name of the person you are praying for:
Father, You have not given Sunflower a spirit of timidity – of cowardice, of craven and cringing and fawning fear – but You have given her a spirit of power and of love….Prayers That Avail Much, Volume Two; Prayer for deliverance from mental disorder
It is a technique that we can employ in our own prayer with scripture:
But now thus says the Lord,Isaiah 43:1
he who created you, O Sunflower,
he who formed you, O Sunflower:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine
If you have never tried this way of praying for others or yourself, I recommend that you try it. It brings God up close and personal and you are left in no doubt that He is talking to you through scripture. I also like to use St. Patrick’s Breastplate as a prayer for protection for myself or others, either in full or in part:
I bind unto Sunflower the Name,St. Patrick’s Breastplate
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three
and I imagine being wrapped up in the Holy Trinity as I do. Painting mandalas and these longer intercessory prayers are excellent when you are holding one or two people in prayer, but what about that long list that I started with? I went to some training with some other spiritual directors a few months ago, and it was the subject of discussion. Someone there talked about having a Prayer Pot. To me, it is an ingenious idea that I have adopted in my own practice. Here is mine:
I have in there, pieces of paper where I have written the names of all those I have said I will hold in my prayers. I have also put in a sachet of Lavender seeds, with some drops of Jasmine essential oil, and some drops of Ylang Ylang essential oil: for me, this formulation represents the “Fragrance of God”, but more on that another time. Sometimes, I might choose a name and focus just on that one person and other times, I put the pot in my prayer space and ask God to be with them all, and give all the graces they need for that day. There are not necessarily the words, more the sense of each person I am holding. And I know that He knows.
We can get trapped rattling through a list of people we must pray for, because we have said that we would and so we carry on obsessively, almost superstitiously, lest we show ourselves to ourselves and others, including God, as insincere and empty. To make a physical offering of them in prayer by way of a collection in a pot, or on a prayer tree, or some other means, allows us to be authentic in our desire to remember those we have said we would pray for, while remaining open to participate in God’s infinite expansion in our own lives, as well as the lives of others.