For about a month now, I have been staring at a page on my computer on which I had written “The Power of Prayer” at the top. I kept meaning to come back to it and write something under the heading, but I could never quite start. On the other hand, I have refused to delete the page or for that matter close and save it. It has just been sitting there on my computer, and every once in a while it appears, a blank page with a pretty common title.
I first typed those words when a woman I knew was in the last throws of stage 4 cancer. While I did not know her well or for long, she was one of those people that you can’t help but like and wish you knew better. She radiated a grace that was magnetic. Like many victims of ovarian cancer, Sandy had not found out that she had cancer at all until it was already staged 4. For the next two years, Sandy’s admirers and social media followers watched with awe as she and her family tried to vanquish the disease. The battle was fought with such grace and optimism! Their Facebook page and Instagram accounts were full of hope; she was going to beat this terrible illness and then came the word that modern medicine was out of options, and maybe the unthinkable was going to happen.
Sandy, as we learned through her postings, was a woman of great faith. When she and her husband shared the terrible news, they also proclaimed that Sandy knew where she was going. This amazing couple had lost a son in a car accident when he was in his late teens, and they rejoiced in knowing mother and son would be reunited if the end came. In short, she believed.
Once the news had broken, there was an instantaneous call for prayer. Using the Internet, friends everywhere committed to join in prayer for Sandy on a specific day and time. The power of prayer would heal her and if not it would give her and her family strength and lift them up to the mercy of God.
I have to confess that I have never been a big prayer group person. I have not understood what prayers were/are for, or what we should expect them to produce. Like many who are raised in mainstream churches and of a certain age, I said my prayers every night as a child and memorized the prayers in the Common Book of Prayer. Most of my youth there was only one Rite and praying was more robotic than anything else. I confessed my sins, declared my beliefs through the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed and gave thanks. I don’t believe it meant much to me it was just something you did. Occasionally, I would have dialogues with God. I would ask him to please look out for my children or when I was younger save me from some terrible thing that I thought was going to happen – like failing math. Starting when I was in my twenties and continuing to this day, I say the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed whenever I fly, during takeoffs and landings. I am afraid of flying, and the recitation of those statements of faith gives me comfort. Unfortunately, I am not sure they give me comfort because I believe in the power of prayer or because they serve as a meditation that helps calm my frightened self. The idea that prayer is something more than a calming mantra has left me searching.
I have listened to priests and Jewish scholars discuss the role of prayer in the life of a religious or spiritual person, but I have not found something in those conversions that I can connect to. Over the years, members of the clergy have urged me to incorporate prayer and spiritual readings into my daily routine, but I never seem to understand why I would do such a thing. What was I supposed to be praying for? Should I be asking for something for someone else? Should I be asking for something for myself? Maybe I should just be praying for “the whole state of Christ’s church,” as I was taught long ago. When I was a kid I would pray that should I die before I wake the Lord would take my soul. Frankly, the Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, prayer is strange to start with, the notion of dying while sleeping for a small child may be a bit frightening. But, the long list of God Blesses at the end is an excellent idea. So, there I was a confused person when it came to prayer and its power when I was asked to join in praying for Sandy on a Monday night at 7:00 pm.
I wasn’t inclined to join in since I didn’t know how to pray, what to say, or what I expected to come from such an activity. I thought about it a lot; I thought about how deep Sandy and her family’s faith was, how inspiring. I thought about how much I did not want her to be sick and die. I thought about how angry I was that such a special person should have this kind of tragedy visited on her and her family who had already lost so much. I thought about how she had refused to give in to certain death without a fight. I thought about how she seemed to savor everything and everyone around her and how we as humans should not be deprived of that beauty. I thought about it all the time until suddenly it was 7 pm on the appointed Monday and it was time. Right then when the clock turned to seven I decided to give it a try.
I wasn’t sure how to start so I just said: “God, can you please let Sandy stay here with her family and friends for a while longer? Could you remove cancer so she could live to see her grandchildren and continue to fill her husband with love and companionship?” I didn’t make any deals like if you do this God, I will do something I think you would like. I just asked that this burden be lifted from these beautiful people. Then I asked that if God didn’t think that was possible that instead perhaps her passing could be peaceful, pain-free and full of love. I didn’t get a yes on the first request, but I did on the second. Even more importantly Sandy and her family were so strengthened and comforted by this outpouring of love and faith that it did truly lift them up in a way I may never come to know or understand. My belief is not so absolute. But then again perhaps that is the power of prayer.
Maybe the answer is simply prayer is what you use to find your way. Perhaps the power of prayer is that it doesn’t have any strict requirements other than you engage in the act of praying. Prayer allows you to focus on what is essential not just to you but to others. It enables you to reflect on the way things are and the way you would like them to be. And yes, prayer is a mantra that brings you peace. If you can believe in what you are praying about or for, then I think the power becomes so much more forceful. I prayed for Sandy and her family to have peace in whatever way God wanted to give that peace to them, and I believe he has and will continue to provide that peace because they are true believers.
For me, I am still a work in progress, but I hold tight to the one prayer that has always given me strength:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
To that, I might add and help me to find the faith that strengthens others.